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A book by any other name

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality

Have you ever been caught in a Catch-22 situation? Do you get the eerie feeling that Big Brother is watching you as you spy yet another CCTV camera filming your every move? Or perhaps you’re grinning like a Cheshire cat having just won another game of hangman on Oxford Dictionaries Online?

The English language is full of words and phrases that have originated in all manner of creative writings, from books to plays, poems, and comic strips. You don’t even have to have read the book or play in question in order to understand the references that have emanated from it, as many of these terms have filtered into our everyday vernacular. Even if you’ve never picked up a novel by Charles Dickens, you’re still unlikely to be tempted by a job offering Dickensian working conditions or want to have a bank manager who’s a real Scrooge.

You may be surprised by some of the terms which are derived from fictional works – brainiac, for example, comes from a Superman comic strip, while Generation X is Douglas Coupland’s brainchild. This post on the OUP blog from 2009 shows how easily the lines between fiction and reality can become blurred by looking into the origin of scientific words such as robotics and zero gravity.

What’s in a name?

When you consider immature Peter Pans, dreamy Romeos, and precocious Lolitas, it doesn’t take a Sherlock to work out that the names of fictional characters in popular novels can also take on whole new meanings.

So the next time you’re trying to talk your friend out of running away with a Lothario, or gossiping with your neighbour about the Stepford wife who’s just moved in down the street, spare a thought for the importance of fiction and how it’s helped to enrich our language.

Anyone for a game of Quidditch?

As easy as it can be for fictional terms and characters to become integrated into our language, it’s not always as simple to reproduce fictional creations in real life. Although a game of Poohsticks is likely to be just as enjoyable for us humans as for Winnie the Pooh and friends, I don’t think a tour of a chocolate factory could ever be as exciting as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (although on the plus side, you are much less likely to end up as a giant blueberry), and as popular as it seems to be, can Muggle Quidditch really cut the mustard? Surely gravity gets in the way?

To celebrate World Book Day, here are my top ten words to have originated in creative writing:

Pantagruelian, thoughtcrime, galumph, Svengali, Pecksniffian, malapropism, milquetoast, Pooterish, rodomontade, and pooh-bah.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.