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.
"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
Repealing Obamacare without a fit replacement will leave tens of millions uninsured. Who is responsible for the fall out? A moral hypothetical raised by Kurt Vonnegut can help.
The Trump administration just unveiled its health care plans. Tom Price, a physician and member of Congress for the state of Georgia, is the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
While his actions have been scrutinized for possible violation of congressional ethics codes before, there is a new question being raised by many people; can he maintain his commitment the Hippocratic Oath while still carrying out orders to end the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare?
For those who need a refresher, the Hippocratic Oath is taken by all doctors as a rite of passage upon becoming certified, and is often summarized by the phrase “Do no harm”. Variations of it were heard recited in ancient Greece by new doctors in the name of the Gods, and it is commonly held to have been composed by the father of western medicine, Hippocrates.
Legally, it has no power; breaking it doesn't mean anything itself. The reciting of the oath is more so a tradition, a personal promise made when you take up the mantle of 'doctor' to always help those in need.
The question was raised as to how far it goes in deciding what a doctor can and cannot do in the state of Georgia. When a group of doctors tried to have a fellow doctor’s license taken away for actively participating in an execution, the state’s response was to make a law protecting such participation as being consistent with holding a doctor’s license.
Some medical students, who have organized into a group called Protect our Patients, have objected to the Trump administration's repeal of the ACA without a suitable replacement ready to go on the grounds that the effect would be to do harm – that which they have sworn against. Seeing the head of the department in charge of the removal of the law being one of their own makes it even more heated for the students.
Before the comments section gets too infuriated, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows that the repeal without replacement of Obamacare would leave tens of millions uninsured, along with a slew of other economic issues arising as well. It is a fact that repealing the ACA without a replacement will cause many people to suddenly lack quality health care.
The concerned physicians raise the vital question of how far a person's responsibility goes when an action that they take causes harm, suffering, or pain later. Even if they did nothing directly.
Kurt Vonnegut offered us an excellent illustration of this problem in 'Look At the Birdie'. Suppose you were to toss a cat over a high wall, only to have it land on another person’s head. Would you be responsible if it was to scratch their face up? Many people would say yes, at least to some extent.
But what if the cat landed on the ground and then attacked somebody an hour later? Are you still at all responsible? Remember, the wall was quite high, and you made the cat go over it. Many people see this as a different question, and insist that the cat tosser is not responsible at all here.
We could make the question a little more intensive. Suppose a child is inspired to become an ER doctor after the murder of his parents. He goes on to save many lives over the course of his career. Is the person who killed his parents also responsible for the good actions of the boy? After all, he did start the process that lead to the lives saved, even if it came at a small cost. That is where measuring consequences becomes tricky. How do you count everything? Do you hold everybody who participated responsible in some way?
In the event that Obamacare was repealed, and Dr. Price took a large role in that repeal, the question could be asked: is he participating in an action that will cause harm later, and does that mean that he is liable for it in any way? People who think the two cases above are very different say no, he isn’t. Those who think them similar would say that he will cause harm in the process, and is bound by honor to not do it.
Can a physician help take away people’s health care without violating the “Do no harm” aspect of their oath? Is the oath worth the paper it is read off of? Does Dr. Price run the risk of violating the oath by collaborating with the new administration in the repeal of Obamacare? The answer depends on how far out from an action you think responsibility for consequences follows.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom believes policy should not be decided by appeals to the emotions of voters, but by hard data: