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Friday, January 30, 2015

From Utopia to Stepford: 20 words & meanings we owe to literary titles

A friend of mine, having just finished reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22, inquired this week how many English catch phrases were derived from book titles. She also mentioned "Jekyll and Hyde".

Wordlady is happy to oblige with more, extracted via some Oxford English Dictionary data mining (love that "Advanced Search" function!). There's even a Canadian one in here (though it hasn't made it into the OED yet). And I've included some famous literary characters who have "become words" too, if their name appears in the title of the book.

1) Babbitt
(the name of George F. Babbitt, the eponymous protagonist of Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel) 

A person likened to the character George Babbitt, esp. a materialistic, complacent businessman who conforms unthinkingly to the views and standards of his social set. 


2) Big Easy 
[popularized by the title of James Conaway's novel The Big Easy (1970) and the 1986 U.S. film of the same name, and perh. originally coined by Conaway]  the city of New Orleans, Louisiana

3) bovarism
the name of the principal character in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1857)
(Domination by) a romantic or unreal conception of oneself.

4) brave new world 
the title of a satirical novel (1932) by Aldous Huxley (after Shakespeare's Tempest v. i. 183) portraying a society in which ‘progress’ has produced a nightmarish ‘utopia’


5) godfather

There is no equivalent expression in Italian of the use  with reference to the Mafia. In specific use with reference to the U.S. Mafia ‘boss of bosses’ after its use in the film The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola, and the 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, on which the film is based 

6) last hurrah   
[after the title of E. O'Connor's novel The Last Hurrah (1956), which was filmed in 1958]
orig. U.S. the final campaign or initiative in a politician's career; (hence) any final performance or effort, a swansong.

7) Manchurian Candidate  
[popularized by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by Richard Condon (1915–96)] 
a person who is (or is believed to be) brainwashed into becoming a subversive agent, esp. an assassin.

8) Moby Dick
Moby Dick, the name of the whale in Herman Melville's 1851 novel of the same name.
Something likened to Moby Dick, esp. in being very large, important, or impressive. 

9) needle park
popularized by the novel The Panic in Needle Park (1966) by James Mills, in which Needle Park referred to a traffic island in New York at the junction of Broadway and 74th Street.
A public area in a city, usually with trees, bushes, benches, etc., where drug addicts gather.

10) Pickwickian 
the name of Mr. Pickwick, the eponymous character in Dickens's novel Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) 

When applied to a person, usually used to suggest plumpness, joviality, benevolence, or innocence.

11) pimpernel
A person whose deeds are likened to those of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; a person engaged in clandestine activities. Also: a person who or thing which is elusive or much sought after. In the novel the Scarlet Pimpernel (Sir Percy Blakeney) rescues victims of the Terror and smuggles them out of France.

12) point-counterpoint
Probably originally chiefly after the title of Aldous Huxley's 1928 novel Point Counter Point

The alternation of points (in an argument, etc.) in opposition or contrast to one another; a debate, argument, or match in which points for two opposing sides are made in succession.

13) quiet American   
[with allusion to Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American (1955)] a person likened to Graham Greene's character Alden Pyle, the ‘quiet American’, esp. in being involved in espionage, or in being naive or idealistic.
14) Stepford 
Stepford, the name of a fictional American suburb in Ira Levin's novel The Stepford Wives (1972), which was the basis of a popular film adaptation in 1975. In the novel and the film, Stepford is a superficially idyllic suburb where the men have replaced their wives with obedient robots.
Robotic; docile; obedient; acquiescent; (also) uniform; attractive but lacking in individuality, emotion, or thought.

15) three musketeers  
[translating French les trois mousquetaires (title of a novel (1844) by Alexandre Dumas père] 
three close associates

16) trilby
The title of a novel by George du Maurier published in 1894, and the name of its heroine.
 1. colloq.
   a. A jocular name for the foot (with reference to Trilby's feet, which were objects of admiration). ? Obs.
b. A particular type of shoe. (Formerly a proprietary name in the U.S.) Obs.

 2. In full trilby hat: a soft felt hat, esp. one of the Homburg type with a narrow brim and indented crown; any hat of a similar shape.

17) two solitudes
from Two Solitudes (1945) a novel by Hugh  MacLennan, alluding to Rainer Maria Rilke “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other. ”

Cdn the anglophone and francophone populations of Canada, portrayed as two cultures coexisting independent of and isolated from each other.

18) Uncle Tom
The name of the hero of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel (1851–2) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, used allusively for a black man who is submissively loyal or servile to white men. 
19) utopia
post-classical Latin Utopia ( T. More De optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516)
 1 a. An imaginary island in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), presented by the narrator as having a perfect social, legal, and political system. Critics have questioned the extent to which More intended Utopia to be understood as an ideal society, given the many seemingly satirical aspects of the book and the apparent contradictions between Utopian practices and More's own life.
2.a. An imagined or hypothetical place, system, or state of existence in which everything is perfect, esp. in respect of social structure, laws, and politics.
 b. A real place which is perceived or imagined as perfect.

20) 1984
Nineteen Eighty-Four, the title of a novel published in 1949 by the English author ‘George Orwell’ which gives a dystopian depiction of a future totalitarian state.
A totalitarian society in which propaganda and intensive surveillance techniques are used to subjugate the population. Hence allusively: a society in which personal freedom is (thought to be) similarly curtailed or controlled.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.