Oscar said it
A man who does not think for himself does not think at all
So wrote the inimitable Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. It’s not an accusation that could be levelled at the man himself. Only 27 years after his death, another inimitable wit, this time Dorothy Parker, published her famous epigram, demonstrating that Wilde’s name was already becoming synonymous with the pithy remark and the wry observation. Pick up any Dictionary of Quotations and there will undoubtedly be quotation after quotation from his pen. While it is true that some are only attributed to him (which backs up Dorothy Parker’s point), many do come from his plays, essays, poems, and sole novel.
He is well represented in quotational form in the Oxford English Dictionary, in entries ranging from adoringly adv. and beautifully adv. to destructful and over-troubled. Fans of The Importance of Being Earnest might be particularly happy that this play is also quoted in the entry for handbag. One can hardly say that word without some approximation of the delivery of Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film adaptation of the play, although it is the delivery rather than the word itself, perhaps, that has associated ‘handbag’ with Wilde. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that a person needn’t have coined a particular word to become (almost) synonymous with it.
The play is famous for another term, which has its own entry in the OED, and which is firmly one of Wilde’s own making – Bunbury. Defined in the OED as “An imaginary person used as a fictitious excuse for visiting a place or avoiding obligations”, the term takes its name from a character in the play.
Or at least, it does if you employ air quotes around the word character. Bunbury himself doesn’t exist, but his non-existence is, as it were, the very point of his existence.
He is a creation of the character Algernon Moncrieff and is his invalid friend who lives in the country. This mirrors the creation of another fictitious character – the titular Ernest – created by the character Jack Worthing for much the same reasons, although in this instance he is a good-for-nothing younger brother, rather than an invalid friend.
Of course it all gets horribly confusing as Jack Worthing also uses the pseudonym for himself – indeed this is how he is known both to Algernon, and to the object of his affections, who is so terribly fond of this name that he ends up being rechristened Ernest just for her.
Wilde also uses Bunbury as a verb, ‘I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions’, and talks of those people who employ such a ruse as Bunburyists. The word has broken out from the confines of the play and has been used in other sources. Perhaps one to remember next time you want to get out of something, but don’t really know how best to do it.
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