Ten More Words We Got from Literature

Our previous post, on ‘Ten Words We Got from Literature’, was so popular with readers that we have decided to write a sequel. We had several great suggestions from readers which we’ve incorporated into this list. As with the previous post, we’re interested only in words which have a definite origin in a literary work.

We’re not so interested in cases where the earliest citation of a word probably already in common use (as is often the case with words attributed to Shakespeare) is found in a work of novel, play, or poem. So, here are ten more words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.

1. Nerd.

From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. The word is first used to mean ‘geek’ shortly afterwards, later in the 1950s.

2. Trilby.

As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier – grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier – published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby – the heroine – and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist.

From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn’t feature in the novel itself) and the term ‘svengali’, meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.

3. Mentor. 

This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer – specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word ‘odyssey’, meaning an adventure). Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we’d heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses).

In Odysseus’ absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – hence the modern connotation of the word of ‘mentor’ as ‘adviser’.

4. Stentorian. 

This is also from Homer, but this time, it’s from his other epic poem, The Iliad. Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective ‘stentorian’, meaning ‘loud and thundering’ (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.

5. Malapropism. 

From Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. The word ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’, hence Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the meaning of ‘malapropism’, namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. ‘pineapple’ for ‘pinnacle’ in ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’.

In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word ‘malapropism’ itself: an office worker had described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (instead of ‘repository’), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ (instead of ‘malapropism’).

Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a ‘Dogberryism’, after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John’s evil scheme. ‘Dogberryism’ is attested by the OED from 1836.

6. Syphilis. 

This word had its origin in a 1530 poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem recounts how Syphilus, a shepherd boy, is afflicted with the disease (which was commonly known at the time as ‘the French disease’).

7. Pamphlet.

Pamphlets have a long literary history, with Daniel Defoe being a prolific pamphleteer, but what most people probably aren’t aware of is the fact that ‘pamphlet’ is itself a word derived from a literary work: the word comes from a comic love poem dating from the fourteenth century and written in Latin.

The poem, ‘Pamphilus; or, Concerning Love’, somehow became associated with unbound booklets (we say ‘somehow’, because the word’s modern political connotations didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century). The name Pamphilus is actually from the Greek meaning ‘friend of everyone’ or ‘lover of all’.

8. Gargantuan.

This word, denoting something very large, is from French writer Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a long work full of bawdy and scatological references written in the sixteenth century. Gargantua, in Rabelais’ novel, is born calling for ale, and with an erection a yard long.

9. Serendipity.

Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, coined the word ‘serendipity’ in the eighteenth century. It means the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’.

He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka).We have written about Walpole previously, and in more detail, here.

10. Robot. 

The word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for ‘drudge’ or ‘slave’. However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word. Or rather, Karel Čapek didn’t. The playwright was searching for a word to call the androids which featured in his play and was dissatisfied with labori (from the Latin for ‘work’).

He sought advice from his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word ‘robotic’ – Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.

More linguistic interestingness can be found in our collection of great trivia about words.

39 thoughts on “Ten More Words We Got from Literature”

  1. I really had a lot of fun reading this post…often wonder where Nerd came from, would never have imaged Seuss! And to think I was one of his greatest fans!!!

  2. I already knew many of these, though ‘nerd’ and ‘pamphlet’ were new to me. And I loved the malapropism entry with the references to the ‘suppository of information’ and ‘miss-marple-ism’. Must try and work those into a conversation sometime…

  3. Origin of words relating to persons Chauvinism-from French soldier Chauvin, to articles of dress from their place of origin :denim from de Nimes . Shakespeare’s time euphemism for brothels was nunnery. When Hamlet tells Ophelia, ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ the audience would had no difficulty to understand what he meant. For ‘c***t the actor would stress on a word say ‘count’-ry matters’ to titillate them. James Joyce was very much into coining words and his Ulysses and Finnigan’s Wake are full of such words. For instance A place where a battle was fought he called as blood field. His biography by Richard Ellemann covers this at length. Those who are interested may find it useful. If we wouldn’t be loving words enough to kill them we wouldn’t be creating anything new. How poor language would be. Thanks for your post.

  4. I enjoyed this so much. As others have commented, I also knew some of the word origins, but I was surprised by nerd and several of the others. I loved the additional info about malapropism from the New Scientist!

  5. Isn’t it interesting how many of these words come from comic, satire, or humor texts. It just gives me all the more reason to teach them. Power to the Funny!

  6. Syphilis coined by a poet, great. I want to become a poet maybe my name will become the name of some disease and then the antidote. Great stuff, I wonder where the hell you get these things…Gooogle? don´t care, funny and interesting. Stay Frosty

  7. I am now well equipped to be able to impress all my friends ! I so dered about maven from The Tipping Point but then realised its not literature. Duh…..


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