Of the innumerable sources that English has borrowed from, the names of authors and characters from their books throw up quite a few coinages that we frequently come across in newspapers, magazines and other media. This blog, the first in the New Year, takes a look at some of the interesting ones.
If you are someone who is drawn to classics, chances are you will know that Charles Dickens, the author of such classics as ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Oliver Twist’, also wrote ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. There is a character in the book by the name of Seth Pecksniff who is a hypocrite, always trying to conceal his selfishness behind a façade of benevolence. So, Pecksniffian means hypocritical, sanctimonious. The noun form is Pecksniffery.
The author himself comes alive in such words and expressions as Dickensian and the dickens. While the first may describe a social problem, a recurring theme in his works, the second can be used in two different sets of instances. While it may replace the word ‘devil’ in such questions as where the dickens you have been or what the dickens do you mean, it can also be used to describe something pleasant or attractive like: (someone is) pretty as the dickens. This expression’s etymology, however, may not have to do anything with the author.
Friedrich A Mesmer created sensation in Vienna and Paris by his assertion that there existed a power, which he termed animal magnetism. Soon the term mesmerism was given to this power, now identified with hypnotism. However, mesmerise as a verb is used today in the sense to fascinate or to spellbind.
There is a reason why Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ should be a favourite of our politicians. In the book, written as a handbook on governance, the author set out the principles of taking hold of and holding on to power. Although, originally, it merely reduced to a science what is now called power politics, Machiavellian as used today means crafty, cunning and deceitful, basically because Machiavelli promulgated the doctrine that any means could be used by a ruler to cling on to power. Finding a wide use, realpolitik would come close to the concept.
We will revisit the subject in the next blog to see how authors and their creations have enriched Queen’s English.