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
What happens when Shakespeare goes to prison? His works humanize prisoners and open them up to reform in a way that the prison system fails to, says author Margaret Atwood.
In Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, the protagonist Felix loses his job as a theatre director and is exiled to teach in a prison. Exiled? You betcha. Atwood’s latest work is a re-telling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
This is how Atwood has come to know these two seemingly at-odds subjects so intimately and, in this video, shows us where such strange bedfellows intersect.
First she asks the most fundamental question: what are prisons for? Are they to inflict punishment for wrongdoing? To teach a lesson? To keep the public safe? To correct someone who has walked dangerously off course? Each era in history has had its own motive, and in the 19th-century the emphasis turned to reform. "We got the idea that prisons should be improving," says Atwood, "that people should be improved by them; that they should learn skills that would be useful to them later on. Instead of prisons, they got called penitentiaries, and then some of them got called reformatories."
Reform got off to a good start, but the U.S. has drastically lost its way. The systems purpose is confused. Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that within three years of release, 67.8% of released prisoners were rearrested. The incarceration climate is clearly not conducive to a fresh start. Until more seismic shifts are made at a systemic level, there is one thing that can help prisoners – or rather one man: William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's works have been taught in prisons, and some of it is well documented, for example the memoir Shakespeare Saved My Life, by Laura Bates, a college professor who went to a maximum security, all-male prison to teach the inmates stories by the Bard. Bates found that they related to the plays deeply, and the papers she got from them were better than the ones she got from her college students. Why? Because those men had lived Shakespeare’s brutal plot lines. Revenge, murder, sick bargains, madness, maiming: it spoke to them on a level many of us may (fortunately) never fully appreciate.
These stories also have a transformative effect on prisoners' empathy, because literary fiction has the power to firmly move you into someone else’s shoes. "If you've been in a very constricted sort of life in which your main idea has been just to keep yourself alive and keep going you often just don't think of what you're doing to other people and how they might feel," Atwood says. Shakespeare speaks to the incarcerated, and humanizes them in a way the prison system fails to.
Margaret Atwood's new book is Hag-Seed.