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Interesting Etymologies 28: Fiction

Updated: Nov 20, 2021




"Hello again Word Lovers!" and in this episode we are going to explore some words that were simply invented by writers that have gone on to become part of normal English.






The satirist Jonathan Swift created many an invented land in his novel "Gulliver's Travels", one of them being Lilliput populated by small people, known as Lilliputians. The giants came from Brobdignag, the Brobdignagians, but this has not made a name for itself in quite the same way in the language.


Yahoo - The search engine actually meant Hooligans after being used by Swift to label an unruly race of creatures. The internet name derives from an acronym "Yet. Another. Hierarchically. Organised. Oracle.


Laputa - An island in the book, which amuses Spanish speakers as this literally means "the prostitute". This was pointed out to Swift who responded tiresomely "Yeah, I know!" (Apparently)


Nihilism - originally invented as a fiction and popularised by Ivan Turgenev.


"The shape of things to come" - An expression that emerges into our language after the title of a H.G Wells novel. That expression had not existed prior to publication.


Wendy - As a name was invented by J.M. Barrie for his character in the book Peter Pan. Wendy did exist as a shortened version of Gwendoline prior to the book but Barrie's friend Mr. Henley's daughter referred to Barrie as her "friendy-wendy". The name definitely soared in popularity after the success of the book.


Dickens had a way with words and many of his delightfully named characters have become part of our language. Uriah Heep (to be servile) Scrooge (hate Christmas and be miserly) and Micawber (be careless with money) for just a starters. (Let's not forget Tiny Tim, The Artful Dodger, Fagin and Sykes. There is an entire study on the naming of Dickensian characters originally published in 1917 available online here)


Nerd has already been discussed in a previous episode (Interesting Etymologies 23: Insults) which comes from a Dr. Zeuss poem.


Quark : The sub atomic particle name comes from the book Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce. The meaning of the word in the novel is not clear, (much like most of the novel to be fair - Ed)


Catch 22 - to be stuck in a position or situation that is impossible to escape, from the novel by Joseph Heller of the same name.


Utopia - first used by Samuel Butler by combining the prefix eu to topos in Greek to create the word "good place".


Malapropism - words incorrectly used in phrases, e.g. the geography of contiguous countries becomes the geometry of contagious countries. This is from the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. She frequently uses words incorrectly in the play and it is assumed Sheridan named her after the word malapropos, an adjective or adverb meaning "inappropriate" or "inappropriately", derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally "poorly placed"). The first recorded use of "malapropos" in English is from 1630, and Lord Byron was the first person known to have used the word "malaprop" in the sense of "a speech error".


Serendipity - to mean something to happen by chance or with great luck, against all likelihood, coined by Horace Walpole from a story he heard which was originally published in Venice in 1557 (Interesting Etymologies 18 Venice for more words from the lagoon city). The Three Princes of Serendip seem to have always discovered things and places by chance or through luck.


Gargantuan & Pantagruel - From the French writer Rabelais. Gargantuan, a giant has come to mean "very large" and Pantagruel, the son of Gargantuan, lends his name to Pantagruelism, a form of stoicism.


Syphilis - A poem from 1530 written by Girolamo Fracastoro where Syphilis is a name of a shepherd boy who contracts an unknown disease. It was of course to give title to a form of sexually transmitted disease in real life.


Pandemonium - First used in 1667 in Milton's Paradise Lost as the capital of Satan's realm. Pan - all or total demonium - demon. The word now means total chaos.


Trilby - An 1894 play adaptation of a novel by George du Maurier called Trilby. The titular hero wore a type of hat in the London production and it immediately became known as a "Trilby".


Whodunit - A genre of mystery fiction first mentioned in 1930 by Milward Kennedy when he reviewed Half Mast Murder in the American News of Books. he described the story as a "satisfactory whodunit" and the word stuck in the popular syntax.


Science Fiction has provided plenty of words to the modern language.


Robot comes from Karol Čapek's play R.U.R. ‘Rossum's Universal Robots’ (1920). It literally derives from Czech, from robota ‘forced labour.


Cyberspace - First used by William Gibson in his book of the same name.


Meme - Coined by Richard Dawkin in The Selfish Gene in 1976 as an attempt to play with the word gene and mime as a way to store information, copy and distribute it. Listen to the show for a more detailed breakdown by Charly.


Lewis Carroll, one of Charly's favourite writers, is famed for his portmanteaus (Interesting Etymologies 5.2 delves into recent portmanteau creations) and Charly gives us a tl east three from the poem The Jabberwocky : Chortle - A way of laughing. Wiffle - A way of laughing and Galumph - A way of moving






















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Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here


As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:


SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor


Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.


So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.


Until now.


This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.


Order your copy here



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