July 31, 2020

Words of the Month - From Fantasy Fiction

        Fantasy fiction has obviously given us words for fantasy subjects, such as orc and jedi, but it has also given us plenty of words for ordinary, everyday usage.  You may be tickled to learn the fantastical origins of some of these words.
        Not surprisingly, classical mythology gives us quite a lot of words.  (It’s always a little questionable whether mythology counts as fantasy fiction in our modern sense — To what extent did people at the time consider the stories factual truth? — but I’m counting it today.)
        protean - changing frequently or easily, from shape-changing Greek sea god Proteus (entered English in the 1590s)
        tantalize - to torment by keeping something desirable just out of someone’s reach, from Tantalus, mythical king of Phrygia punished in this way in Tartarus (entered English in the 1590s)
        atlas - a book of maps, from Atlas, a giant (often considered a Titan, see below) forced to hold up Earth or the pillars of heaven.  He was often depicted holding up the globe on the frontispiece of early books of maps, and his name seems to have been applied to the book itself for the first time in 1636.
        panic - sudden terror, from Pan, Greek god of woods and fields, said to inspire such fear in lonely and desolate places (entered English first as an adjective around 1600, and as a noun around 1708)
        titanic - huge, from the Titans, the giants who were overthrown by Zeus and the Greek gods (entered English c. 1709)
        Jonathan Swift gives us two words with their origins in Gulliver’s Travels, his 1726 best-selling satire of fantastical travellers’ tales and human nature.
        lilliputian - small and delicate, from Lilliput, the land of tiny people.  (Variants of this word have actually entered several European languages.)
        yahoo - vicious humanoid brute.  Gulliver ends up claiming that all humans are in fact yahoos, but the usage of the word in English now refers to rude, noisy, or uncivilized people, as opposed to the rest of us, who are obviously cultivated, reasonable, and refined.
        There are actually several more words from Gulliver’s Travels that you may occasionally encounter, but I haven’t included them today because I considered them more obscure and/or very consciously referential, rather than truly integrated into English.

        The rest of today’s words come from a variety of fantasy tales, and I offer them in chronological order of their original sources (which is not in all cases the same as the order of their adoption into the English language).
        serendipity - the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way, coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in reference to a Persian fairy tale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.”  The tale dates back at least to 1302, and Serendip was the Persian word for Sri Lanka.  Sources say the English translation came by way of a French translation of an Italian version from Indian sources, but I can’t find a date for a first appearance in English.  As for the word serendipity, it didn’t really catch on until the 20th century.
        gargantuan - enormous, from Gargantua, a giant in the mid-16th-century series The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais (in English by the 1590s)
        quixotic - impractically romantic, holding impossible ideals, from Miguel Cervantes’s 1605 Don Quixote de la Mancha, a satirical novel that is not really fantasy, but certainly somewhere in the vein of high epic.  (It entered English around 1790.)
        muckracker - a journalist who looks for scandal, from the “man… with a Muckrake in his hand” in John Bunyan’s 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory with various fantastical episodes.  The word had already existed in English with it’s literal meaning “someone who rakes through muck searching for valuables,” but its more figurative sense of hunting scandal dates to 1872, and its application to journalists was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
        scrooge - miser or curmudgeon, from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843.  Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have been used as an ordinary word until the 1940s.
        chortle - a sort of pleased laugh, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in 1871.
        grinch - a mean-spirited killjoy, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss, 1957.

[Pictures: Pan, engraving from Le Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi by Vincenzo Cartari, 1664 (Image from Soul Spelunker);
Lilliputians Examining the Man-Mountain’s Possessions, clearly copied from illustration by Thomas Morten, 1865 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Gargantua, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1873 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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