Word of the Week: Lilliputian

Word: Lilliputian

Pronunciation: li-lə-PYOO-sh(ə)n

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: trivial or very small

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


I shall personally see to it that the demented, drooling, slime-breathed little Lilliputian who owns this disgusting ribbon will never see the light of day again!
– Miss Trunchbull, Matilda (1996)

Continuing from last week’s theme of Gulliver’s Travels words, today’s Word of the Week entry features another adjective taken from Jonathan Swift’s most famous novel. In the above scene from the 1996 film Matilda, Miss Trunchbull has assembled Miss Honey’s class to accuse one of them of breaking into her house to terrorize her the night before. Her one clue to the culprit’s identity is the ribbon she found outside her house, and though she already knows it belongs to Matilda, she takes her time building up the fear in all the children with a particularly elaborate threat. Harsh as they are, at least one of her chosen words is accurate; compared to the towering Trunchbull, Matilda and her classmates are indeed “Lilliputian”!

Anything described as “Lilliputian” is very small or trivial. The word arose in the early 18th century and was created by Irish author Jonathan Swift for his novel Gulliver’s Travels. This word comes from the name of Swift’s fictional land Lilliput, which is populated by people six inches tall.

Though I first heard the word “Lilliputian” in Matilda years ago, I only recently learned what it means; until now, I assumed it was just another of the Trunchbull’s countless creative insults for children (it certainly sounds like one!). Like “Brobdingnagian”, “Lilliputian” also doubles as a noun (in this case, for a tiny person or thing) and should always be capitalized as it derives from a proper noun. If you write about trivial things or characters who are exceptionally small, “Lilliputian” may be a good word to consider for your stories!

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Word of the Week: Brobdingnagian

Word: Brobdingnagian

Pronunciation: brahb-ding-NA-ɡee-ən

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: gigantic

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Raj: You said I could buy a desk.

Sheldon: This isn’t a desk. This is a Brobdingnagian monstrosity.

Raj: Is that the American idiom for giant, big-ass desk?

The Big Bang Theory (Season 4, Episode 4 – The Hot Troll Deviation)

If you’ve watched this episode of The Big Bang Theory, you probably visualized Raj’s comically huge desk while reading the above dialogue. During a workplace feud between Sheldon and Raj (who are working together), Raj decides to mess with Sheldon by buying himself a desk that takes up half their office. Sheldon then complains about its ridiculous size using an equally ridiculous word, and though it sounds unusual, it nonetheless captures the absurdity of the situation. Where all other adjectives fail, nothing says “comically gigantic” like “Brobdingnagian”!

Anything described as “Brobdingnagian” is gigantic in size. The word arose in the early 18th century and was invented by Irish author Jonathan Swift, who used it in his satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels. This word comes from the name of Swift’s fictional land Brobdingnag, which is occupied by giants.

Aside from its main use as an adjective, “Brobdingnagian” can also be used as a noun to refer to a giant person, as these were the colossal occupants of the aforementioned fictional land. Note that because it derives from a name, the word should always be capitalized. Its use is extremely rare (I’ve only ever heard it before on The Big Bang Theory), but it can certainly be used to humorous effect when describing something outstandingly enormous. If you write comedy full of giant people or things, “Brobdingnagian” may be an excellent word to use in your stories!

Sheldon: Help me move my desk.

[…]

Raj: No. It’s too Brobdingnagian.

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Word of the Week: Oligarchy

Word: oligarchy

Pronunciation: AH-lə-ɡahr-kee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


It’s Independence Day in the US tomorrow, so why not take this opportunity to learn a new political word? Today’s Word of the Week is one I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and now that some might say it’s more relevant than ever, it’s a good time to finally add it to the list! We love to believe in the idea of democracy, a government of the people, but sometimes the reality seems more like a select few are calling all the shots. In a nation where the wants of the few outweigh the needs of the many, we can only be living in an “oligarchy”!

An “oligarchy” is a form of government in which a small group of people control an entire country, institution, or organization. The word arose in the late 15th century and comes from the Greek noun oligarkhía, meaning “rule of few”. This noun comprises the adjective olígos “few” and the noun arkhḗ “authority”.

Historically, an “oligarchy” has usually been characterized as tyrannical and oppressive in nature, with power belonging to minorities distinguished by such criteria as nobility, wealth, or religious influence. Aristotle first used the word synonymously with “rule by the rich”, a definition that many critics still use in reference to certain modern governments. If your stories are set in a fictional world ruled by a small but powerful group, you’ve definitely created an “oligarchy”!

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Word of the Week: Despot

Word: despot

Pronunciation: DES-pət

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a ruler or other person who holds absolute power, typically one who exercises it in a cruel or oppressive way

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


There are despots and dictators,
Political manipulators.
There are blue bloods with the intellects of fleas.
There are kings and petty tyrants
Who are so lacking in refinements,
They’d be better suited swinging from the trees!
– “Perfect World“, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that wacky Disney movie about a cool Mesoamerican emperor who gets turned into a llama? If you saw even the trailers for this film back in the year 2000, you may recall that Emperor Kuzco is so vain, he even has a servant whose only job is to sing him his own theme song (voiced by Tom Jones, no less)! To emphasize the emperor’s greatness, the opening lines of the song mention other types of not-so-great rulers who could never measure up to him. The irony? Given his extreme selfishness, Kuzco may very well be a “despot” himself!

A “despot” is a ruler with absolute power, which is typically exercised in an oppressive or cruel way. The word arose in the mid 16th century and traces back through the French noun despote and the Latin noun despota to the Greek noun despótēs, meaning “master”. This word was first used as a court title in the Byzantine empire, while the current sense dates back to the late 18th century.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word “despot” originally referred to petty Christian rulers under the Turkish empire after the conquest of Constantinople. While not originally pejorative, the word gradually took on a negative connotation throughout history, eventually becoming synonymous with such terms as “tyrant” and “dictator”. Notably, however, despotism is a distinct form of government with its own history, so take care when using these terms interchangeably in a historical context. If you write characters who are oppressive rulers with absolute power, “despot” may be an excellent word to include in your stories!

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Word of the Week: Gubernatorial

Word: gubernatorial

Pronunciation: ɡoo-bər-nə-TO-ree-əl

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: relating to a state governor or the office of state governor

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


George: What about candleholders?
Jerry: Too romantic.
George: Lingerie?
Jerry: Too sexual.
George: Waffle maker?
Jerry: Too domestic.
George: Bust of Nelson Rockefeller?
Jerry: Too gubernatorial.
Seinfeld (Season 2, Episode 9 – The Deal)

Despite its serious connotation, I first learned today’s Word of the Week from an episode of one of my favorite comedy shows, Seinfeld. After making his infamous “deal” with Elaine, Jerry learns the real challenge of maintaining a friends-with-benefits relationship when he tries and fails to find a birthday gift for her that won’t send the wrong message. This leads to the hilarious exchange above that ends with an exasperated George sarcastically suggesting the only item in the store with no romantic undertones, which Jerry still dismisses as “too political”. He does have a point: given that he was once the governor of New York, a bust of Nelson Rockefeller is indeed “gubernatorial”!

Anything defined as “gubernatorial” refers to a governor or the office of governor, particularly a state governor in the US. The word arose in the mid 18th century and comes from the Latin noun gubernator, meaning “governor”. This noun stems from the verb gubernare “to govern”, which in turn derives from the Greek verb kubernáō “to steer”.

For obvious reasons, the word “gubernatorial” comes up most often in the media during congressional election cycles. However, it’s important to note that while it may be confused for a general political word, this adjective refers specifically to the office of governor (the senate equivalent, for example, would be “senatorial”). If you write political fiction with characters who are or plan to be governors, “gubernatorial” may be a useful word for your stories!

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Word of the Week: Paterfamilias

Word: paterfamilias

Pronunciation: pay-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs / pah-tər-fə-MI-lee-əs

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the male head of a family or household

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Father’s Day is this Sunday, so it’s a good week to share an uncommon synonym for “father”! Following the vocabulary word I shared for Mother’s Day, today’s Word of the Week is its equally exotic-sounding male counterpart. While the former holiday is dedicated to female heads of families everywhere, this upcoming holiday is a chance to celebrate every “paterfamilias” in your life!

A “paterfamilias” is the male head of a household or family. The word comes from the Latin phrase pater familias, meaning “father of the household”. This phrase comprises the noun pater “father” and the noun familia “family”.

Historically, a “paterfamilias” was the patriarch of a Roman family, established as the oldest living male in the household. His duties included managing his estate, exercising authority over every other member of his extended family, and actively participating in Roman political and social life. Similar to “materfamilias”, the plural form of “paterfamilias” is “patresfamilias”. If you write characters who are fathers and/or male heads of their households (especially for historical fiction about Ancient Rome), “paterfamilias” is a good word to include in your vocabulary!

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