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A Gargantuan Error: Quixotic Is Not The Only Word From A Book Character


Since making a mistake here this week, I've been thinking a lot about Oedipal complexes and Faustian bargains. That's because of an exchange in my interview with professor Ilan Stavans to mark the 400th anniversary of the great novel "Don Quixote." Stavans has written a book about the Spanish classic, and several listeners noted that we both made a gargantuan error. Here's what I said.


SIEGEL: You've concluded that quixotic is the only word coined by the actual title of a novel. We can talk about things that are Joycean or Swiftian, but those are about the writers.


SIEGEL: This is actually about a literary character, and we can't find anyone ever being called Macbethian or something like that.

STAVANS: Right. I find that to be just extraordinary.

SIEGEL: One listener who took us to task joins us now. He is Dr. Bruce Conforth, professor of American culture at the University of Michigan. Welcome to the program.

BRUCE CONFORTH: Well, thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: And I have already very guiltily used three words that our keen listeners reminded us of - gargantuan, after Gargantua from Rabelais's "Gargantua And Pantagruel," Oedipal from Oedipus and Faustian from "Doctor Faust." You have some others for us.

CONFORTH: Well, Lothario from Nicholas Rowe's "The Fair Penitent," Frankenstein, of course, from Mary Shelley, malaprop from Sheridan's "The Rivals" - Mrs. Malaprop, Shylock from Shakespeare's "The Merchant Of Venice." And the one that first came to my mind was wellerism from Sam Weller from Dickens' "Pickwick Papers."

SIEGEL: What's a wellerism?

CONFORTH: Wellerism is an interesting type of proverb where you start with a speaker and a humorous literal explanation. I see, said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Now, you also mentioned Mrs. Malaprop, but that seems like a name that was designed to describe something that's mal-apropos or inappropriate as opposed to just to a name like Quixote that connoted absolutely nothing when it was...

CONFORTH: Well, I think you're right. And I think in some of these instances, the authors were clearly trying to reflect a certain zeitgeist of the time or a certain trend that was happening.

SIEGEL: Professor Stavans argued that by creating a character who gave many languages - that is also something that - the word quixotic seems to be in an huge number of languages - that Cervantes had redefined the world. You think Mary Shelley, in writing "Frankenstein," or Rabelais, in writing about Gargantua, or Dickens did the same?

CONFORTH: Oh, I think we're always in a constant state of social construction of reality. So I think it's an author's duty, almost, to redefine the world. Isn't that what literature and art is about - redefining the world?

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Conforth, professor of American culture at the University of Michigan and attentive member of the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED audience, thank you very much for talking with us.

CONFORTH: It was a great pleasure being here. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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