The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Utopia’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Sometimes, writers get undue credit for coining particular words. Did Shakespeare really ‘invent’ the word ‘alligator’? Or ‘puking’? Or is his use of these words simply the earliest use we have (or at least, have found) on record? (Indeed, in the case of ‘alligator’ Shakespeare’s isn’t even the earliest use found on record: this word, albeit with slightly different spellings, has been found in texts from the 1550s, before Shakespeare was even born.)

But the word utopia belongs to that relatively small class of words which were definitely coined by a particular writer in a specific work of literature. We can trace the origin of the word utopia with some precision: it was Sir Thomas More, in 1516, in a work called Utopia.

But how did More come to dream up such a word, and what does it mean?

Most people know Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) for two things. The first is for falling foul of Henry VIII when Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn. More could not countenance this defiance of the Catholic line on the matter: the Pope himself had decreed that Catherine was Henry’s lawful wife, and divorce – to the staunchly Roman Catholic More – was unthinkable.

As Robert Bolt wittily has More say in his play about the matter, A Man for All Seasons, the Pope issued a special dispensation in the first place so that Henry might marry Catherine (his late brother’s widow). Now, Henry was asking that they dispense with the dispensation! More could not in good conscience agree to such a thing.

But as well as being an important Tudor statesman during this turbulent time in English history, Sir Thomas More was also a writer. And the other thing he’s probably best-known for is writing a book called Utopia, which gave its name to any imagined ideal society and, by association, to a literary genre: utopian literature or utopian fiction.

In his book Utopia, which is the length of a short novel or novella, More describes an imaginary island whose inhabitants enjoy a political and social system which seems to be perfect. More appears to be sketching out the ideal society.

Most of us don’t read Utopia in the original. Well, let’s face it: most people don’t read it at all: despite its manageably short length, the book is on that list of classics which hardly anybody reads.

But even when people do read it, they rarely read More’s original text because he wrote the book in Latin; the first English translation would appear in 1551, sixteen years after More was executed. The word utopia, however, is ultimately derived from (ancient) Greek. And the word contains a joke – or even, perhaps, a couple of jokes.

More was known for his ready wit: indeed, the title of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, derives from Robert Whittington’s description of More’s myriad qualities including his good humour or ‘marvellous mirth’. And utopia is itself a kind of joke or pun. It’s from post-classical Latin, which is itself ultimately from the ancient Greek οὐ meaning ‘not’ and τόπος meaning ‘place’. So, u-topos (the topos being the same root that gives us words like ‘topography’ and ‘topic’) means ‘not-place’ or, if you like, ‘no place’.

However, the u- prefix sounds the same as eu-, which means ‘good’ or ‘well’, as in eulogy (speak well of), the name Eugene (well-born), and, er … eugenics (which means ‘good birth’ or ‘well-born’ again, the – discredited – idea being to breed a race of superhumans). So although utopia means ‘no place’ or ‘non-place’, it sounds like eutopia which could mean ‘good place’.

Of course, even without the pun, the word utopia is a kind of sardonic joke: not just because the place More describes doesn’t exist (it’s fictional) but because such a wonderful place could never exist in our imperfect world. It is, quite literally, too good to be true.

Once we realize the very word utopia is a pun (both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’ – in other words ‘too good to be true’) it becomes evident that More is poking fun at the world’s excessive idealists.

Indeed, nobody can quite agree whether More is pulling the reader’s leg in Utopia or sincerely offering a vision of a perfect world. But since the people of Utopia are able to be divorced by mutual consent, and there are women priests, it seems more likely that he is being satirical: his utopia isn’t even ‘his’ utopia, at least not on a personal level.

It would be like a modern-day far-right conservative figure writing a book describing an ‘ideal society’ in which taxes were high, capitalism was abolished, and socialism was implemented. It’s possible, but we’d have a feeling such a utopia was being offered with a smile and a wink.

What’s more, although More gave a whole genre its name when he coined the word utopia, he didn’t actually invent the idea of the fictional utopia. Ideal societies had long been a fixture of writers from the classical era onwards, beginning with the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh and its description of a world free from death, mourning, sickness, and old age.

Plato’s The Republic continued the idea, and some scholars have even interpreted Plato’s book – like More’s own – as satirical in intent.

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