5 Words with Origins in Literature

wocketBooks can change the way we think and often continue to influence us long after we set them aside. Anyone who, like me, has recently been on an Austen kick can attest to the fact that when one reads literature with a certain tone, it tends to carry over into your everyday conversations. I recently got squint-eyed looks for using the term “fortnight”. Sometimes, instead of adopting a book’s air, we may start using its fictional characters or words to inspire our own vocabulary (e.g., my husband and I have started to refer to our phones as “wockets” in reference to Dr. Seuss’ children’s book There’s a Wocket in my Pocket). Even some words that seem as if they must have come from lab coat clad scientists slaving away in a sterile laboratory actually first appeared in works of science fiction.

Books do more than put pictures in our heads; they put words in our mouths. Here’s a list of 5 words which were derived from literature and have since been added to our vocabularies:

1. Malapropism: from the character Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. It’s used to refer to an amusing misuse of words, especially by the confusing of similar sounds. One example is: “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”

2. Robot: the word “robot” has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for “drudge” or “slave.” However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word, his brother, joseph, was the one who suggested it. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word “robotic” in his 1941 science fiction story Liar!. Asimov also named the related occupation of roboticist and coined the adjective robotic.

3. Namby-pamby:  originates from the poem Namby Pamby (1725), by Henry Carey. Carey wrote the poem as a satire of Ambrose Philips (“Amby” used as a childish form of “Ambrose”), for writing baby-talk verses which he dedicated to the infant children of his friends. Since then the term has been used to describe anything weak, silly, or overly sentimental.


4. Lilliputian: The word was first used to name the inhabitants of an island in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels who are six inches tall, but the word has since come to mean a person or thing that is unusually small in height.

5. Zero-Gravity and Zero-G: The first known use of “zero-gravity” is from Jack Binder (better known for his work as an artist) in a 1938 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine. In it he is actually referring to the gravity-free state of the Earth’s core. Arthur C. Clarke simplified it to Zero-G in his 1952 novel, Islands in the Sky.


What words would you like to add to the list?