Week of October 31, 2021

Character-istically Descriptive


In Mary Shelly’s classic novel Frankenstein, brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a humanoid being of superhuman size, strength, and speed out of body parts from graveyards and slaughterhouses. However, the intelligent but angry and vengeful creature wreaks havoc on the life of his creator and his family, so calling something a “Frankenstein” implies that it has grown beyond the control of its creator, or is assembled from parts of many disparate sources.


Calling someone “Pollyanna” or being “Pollyannish” refers to the title character of this 1913 Eleanor Hodgman Porter book. Though orphaned and sent to live with her icy aunt, perpetually optimistic 11-year old Pollyanna strives to see the good in everything. In modern usage, however, this term can also imply a naïve optimism.


A “Faustian bargain” aka a “devil’s bargain,” usually involves trading one’s soul or another essential thing in exchange for a less-valuable worldly gain such as riches, fame, knowledge, or power. Doctor Faustus was a 1604 tragic play by Christopher Marlowe in which a folkloric doctor makes such a deal with Satan’s agent, with the story later retold in a play by Goethe.


To be “quixotic” means to foolishly pursue grand or romantic ideals, and comes from the the namesake of Miguel Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, who reads books on romance and chivalry until he himself ventures out to idealistically revive chivalry in his own native Spain, along with his more practical squire Sancho Panza.


Gargantua is a giant king in the 16th century book The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by French author Francois Rabelais. It is from his name we get the term “gargantuan” for enormous things.


The race of people known as the Lilliputians encountered by the protagonist in Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift only stand about six inches tall. Accordingly, something “lilliputian” is small and trivial.


In 1924, T.H. Webster developed a comic strip called “The Timid Soul,” including one character named Caspar Milquetoast. The term “milquetoast” was born after this mild-mannered “man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”