The words below all have something in common, and if you know what it is, you have a clue to this week’s blog post. (Hint: try to guess all the definitions before jumping to the answers.)
A) Unintentionally using a wrong but similar-sounding word, often with humorous effect
B) Grabbing the wrong item from the prop table in the middle of a play
C) A gibberish word made up when one cannot think of the correct word to use in a sentence
A) Extremely strange; beyond belief
B) Quick to believe made-up stories
C) Idealistic and prone to absurd lengths of chivalry
A) An attempt to impress Italian women
B) A braggart
C) A word that has extra suffixes appended to it to make it sound more impressive
A) A large, baggy umbrella
B) A piece of plastic tied around one’s head to keep off the rain
C) A special shoe or boot cover worn while riding a horse in rainy or muddy weather
A) Someone who smells food to see if it’s ready instead of tasting it
B) Haughty; proud
C) Annoyingly hypocritical
A) Characterized by talking too much
B) Optimistic beyond belief
C) A magazine with only glossy pages
A) Using visiting a made-up person as an excuse to go somewhere or get out of something
B) Baking bread or rolls with a savory or sweet filling in the middle
C) Traveling without a plan or destination in mind
A) A transition in a conversation made by saying the word “well . . .” and trailing off
B) Like an old wives’ tale, a piece of inaccurate medical advice, especially one that sounds like a cure-all
C) An expression that pairs a well-known saying with a humorous or ironic take on it
A. This word sounds like it originates with proper Latin roots but actually was made up in the late 1700s. Playwright Richard Sheridan named one of his characters in “The Rivals” Mrs. Malaprop, and she regularly committed the blunders in the definition. Geography became geometry, influence became affluence, and so forth. However, Sheridan started with a French term, “mal a propos,” or inappropriate. Here’s a video with more on malapropisms and a similar concept, “egg-corns.”
|Another character known for his malapropisms--before malapropism was even a word.|
B. If you guessed this stems from Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, you’re right, but don’t pronounce it the same way. Quixotic is pronounced “quicks-aw-tic,” while Quixote retains the Spanish “Key-ho-teh.”Merriam-Webster puts the first use of Quixotic at 1718.
|Because I had to. (https://xkcd.com/556/)|
B. (though a case could be made for A or C ...) Braggadocio was a minor character in Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queen, the first installment of which was published in 1590. He was basically what the definition says, and the word probably originated from “braggart.” The noun can be used several ways: as a stand-in for a person (“He was a braggadocio”), the description for the bragging done (“To impress, he relied on braggadocio”), or a way to describe the overblown efforts of someone trying to sound proud (“His braggadocio was not convincing”).
A. To be fair, this is listed in the dictionary as a British term, but it’s really fun and on topic (if you’ve got that figured out ...). Mrs. Sarah Gamp, a nurse, was one of many caricatures from the mind of Charles Dickens and captured the public’s imagination in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. (Here’s a fun, short description of her.) She carried an umbrella that fits the definition, and pretty soon, the umbrella kept her name. The stereotype of her as a nurse also stuck around longer than was beneficial for society.
|Image credit: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/barnard/mc1.html. Illustration by Fred Barnard, scanned by Philip. V Allingham.|
C. Going right back to Martin Chuzzlewit, this word derives from Seth Pecksniff, a character trying to appear virtuous while being quite the opposite. According to Merriam-Webster, the term was first used in 1849, only five years after the publication of the novel.
|Image credit: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/mc/18.html. Illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.|
B. A is the deceptive answer here, since the root origins of the word are pan, meaning all, and glossa, meaning tongue (think glossary). In fact, Voltaire’s character Dr. Pangloss from the 1759 novel Candide does talk a lot, at the expense of actually doing anything. But he’s also convinced that everything in the world is as it should be, and the evil that occurs is bringing about the best good possible. (This was a controversial theological theory in the day.) Voltaire is satirizing an extreme response to this idea, which is pretending bad things must somehow be good.
Also, I’ve never read Candide, but now I realize I never want to ... it’s weird.
A. This one’s an even tougher sell than gamp, because Merriam-Webster doesn’t list it at all. However, Google will turn up a plethora of resources that do define it, like Wiktionary, Definitions.net, Collins Dictionary, the Free Dictionary, and, of course, Urban Dictionary. Bunbury is a made-up friend of Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest who is constantly sick. Algernon can plead needing to visit Bunbury anytime he wants to escape to another city or avoid an awkward situation. Actually, Ernest is a “Bunbury” as well, made up by the play’s protagonist, Jack. I guess saying bunburying is just more fun.
C. Dickens characters just say the darndest things. Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick’s servant in The Pickwick Papers (1837), was known for spouting gems like, “It’s over, and can’t be helped, and that’s one consolation, as they alway say in Turkey, ven they cuts the wrong man’s head off (sic).”
By this point, you’ve probably guessed the common denominator of these words—they all originate from the name of a fictional character. There’s a term to describe this—last vocabulary word for the day—eponym. Any place, person, or thing that gives its name to a common or different noun is an eponym. (I’ll just let you browse the full list to get an idea of it.)
The words in my quiz are special because they’re eponymous to fictional characters. (Bunbury holds the record; he’s a fiction of one of the characters in a fictional play.) Some of these are very old, others not at all. Some took a century or more for the definition to become separated from its work of literature, others took less than a decade. Such is the power of fiction, that we’ll coin words based on characteristics of people who don’t even exist.
But we want to believe they exist.
That, I believe, is one of the true marks of a great writer—having characters so distinct that readers remember them by what they say (or how they say it), their mannerisms, and even they accessories they carry. Characters that bleed into the real world because we can picture them talking to us, walking down the street, or standing out in a crowd.
Want to have equally memorable characters? Here are a few tips:
- Try naming your characters creatively, with roots to real English words or foreign words. Just the name Braggadocio gives you a pretty good idea in an instant of what he’s like.
- Give them interesting behaviors, quirks, or items. What would cause you to say about someone in the real world, “That person’s a character!”? Characters are, well, characters because they’re larger than life or absurd. Plus, readers can keep characters straight in their heads when they’re tied to concrete items and behaviors.
- Don’t be afraid to get really out there, dialogue-wise. Everyone talks differently, and people in the real world are memorable when they have an unusual way with words.
- A caveat here is that many of the above characters aren’t three-dimensional. They’re often memorable because they emphasize a single trait. So you may want your memorable character to be a supporting character, like Gamp or Malaprop.
(Special thanks go to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Most of my information came from that site.)