Eight authors that became adjectives: Freudian, Shakespearean and more

What does it really mean when something is "Dickensian"? Or "Kafkaesque"? Sometimes these words are overused to the point where they lose their meaning. Here's how these and 6 other words got their origin. 

Some words have been used to death; their meanings lost to excessive use. Others retain their meaning but are chronically misunderstood. This phenomenon isn't anything new, Sartre declared the world existentialism to be meaningless back in 1946. Today, the terms we stand to lose the meaning of are even more myriad.

Here we have eight literary words that are either overused, misused, or flat out confused with something else. We hope to explain them and give you examples of media that embody the terms.


Named for: The works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Means:  Vonnegut's works often explore the flimsiness of the world we have around us, while also adding in large doses of science fiction and leaps of imagination to take the edge off the creeping absurdism and occasional nihilism. His books often present a rather depressing worldview, but one in which characters often manage to persevere and even find a bit of happiness despite everything. 

Great examples of his work include Slaughterhouse Five and The Sirens of Titan. Other works that can be called Vonnegutesque are The Truman Show and Pleasantville.

"When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."- Slaughterhouse Five



Named for: Charles Dickens

Means: Charles Dickens was an English writer during the Victorian era when the British Empire was at the height of its power. Rather than focus on the glory of his homeland, his works take us to the poverty-ridden streets of London where he shows us heroes crushed under the weight of social injustice and villains so repulsive they almost seem funny. The term can also be used politically to recall the injustices of the Victorian era. 

Dickensian books include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield among others. Almost all of these have all been adapted dozens of times into film.

"In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter".- Great Expectations



Named for: One book by George Orwell.

Means: Totalitarian, especially when relating to the ability of the state or a similar organization to always know what you are doing.  Despite his extensive body of work, George Orwell is remembered principally for 1984, his dystopian novel on totalitarianism in Airstrip One.

We tend to misuse this one, as speed cameras aren't quite Orwellian. The real terror of the Orwellian nightmare isn't that somebody has lots of information about where are you and what you are doing, but also that they seek to use it to destroy what individuality you have by using it.

Works that are Orwellian include 1984, Brave New World, and We. While the modern tendency is towards more surveillance, states which have systems that are Orwellian in scope are limited perhaps only to North Korea.



"Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death"- 1984



Named for: The works of William Shakespeare

Means: Shakespeare is, justly, considered the finest playwright of all time. Working in Elizabethan England, his plays and sonnets changed the English language and have been translated into nearly every living language since. His dialogue is particularly noteworthy, characters express themselves vividly and are relatable even centuries after they were created. Excellent prose, dramatic character arcs, or even insightful dialogue may be termed "Shakespearean" if it is done well enough. 



Works: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and dozens of others. 

"To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?"- Hamlet



Named for: The psychology of Sigmund Freud.

Means: While Freudian ideas on treating illness have been rejected by psychiatrists in favor of more modern approaches, the themes he explored continue to influence the popular conception of psychotherapy. His ideas on sexuality, the Oedipus complex, phallic imagery, the effects that your childhood can have on you now, and dozens of other concepts that make you feel uncomfortable around your mother find their way into our media fairly regularly. We all tend to make Freudian slips now and again too.

Works that embody this concept include Psycho, The Interpretation of Dreams, and the works of David Lynch.

"The sexual wishes in regard to the mother become more intense and the father is perceived as an obstacle to the; this gives rise to the Oedipus complex." -The Ego and the Id



Named for: The author of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli.

Means: Machiavelli was a renaissance political theorist in Florence most famous for writing The Prince.  In it, he objects to the idea of a virtuous and compassionate monarch and advocates strictly for ruling by power, intrigue, and cunning. This cynical brand of realpolitik gives us the world Machiavellian. Despite its negative connotation, a Machiavellian politician would be a rather effective one, as teaching rulers how to be effective was the point of the book.

The man himself offered examples of real rulers who lived up to his standards. His list included both Cincinnatus and Cesare Borgia. Later on, Napoleon, Stalin, and Mussolini wrote commentaries on The Prince in their spare time; whether or not they truly lived up to Machiavellian ideals is another question.

"…if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."- The Prince



Named for: the works of Franz Kafka.

Means: The worlds Kafka creates in his stories feature surrealistic bureaucratic systems that are just as absurd as they are relatable. Characters experience dread, hopelessness, and despair when placed against a faceless problem that cares nothing for them. A system which is overly complicated and depersonalized isn't enough to be Kafkaesque, however; there must be an element of the absurd, self-propagating, machine that drags people along in its wake as well.

Examples: Kafka's The Trail (the book and the film), The Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, and In The Penal Colony. Works by others that embody the term include the film Brazil and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I'm going now to close it." – Before the Law



Named for: Draco (Drakon)

Meaning: Draco was the first democratic lawgiver of Athens. Elected on a Law and Order platform, once in power he instituted some extremely harsh laws, with the death penalty being dished out for stealing vegetables. Just as a "Draconian" punishment is one which seems a little too extreme, so was the list of legislation he issued to the people who elected him.

While his legacy has a negative connotation a common story of his death tells us he was suffocated under a mass of cloaks and garments thrown on him in gratitude by the voters of Athens. Most of his laws were altered by Solon when the Athenian constitution was reworked a few decades later, though his laws on homicide were retained.

Examples: While harshness is a relative term, most would agree that the death penalty for stealing a cabbage is a little much.

“It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones'- Plutarch



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The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

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Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.