Literary figures in everyday speech

In one of my recent classes, we were discussing the way in which the use of social media inside authoritarian countries like Russia, China and Iran is almost always monitored, and how posting something that’s deemed to be subversive or in opposition to the state can land you in hot water. Share an anti-government meme or express support for Ukraine or the Women, Life, Freedom protesters and you might find the secret police knocking on your door in the small hours.

Many people living inside such countries are all-too well aware of the fact that Big Brother is always watching you. Now, many of you will know that this phrase comes from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, which depicts a totalitarian state where through the use of mass surveillance techniques the powers-that-be – represented by the figure of Big Brother – watch everything you say and do. In Orwell’s novel, there are endless posters of Big Brother’s everywhere and you’re constantly reminded that you’re always being watched.

Of course, 75 years after the publication of 1984, modern technology means it’s much easier to keep tabs on people and to track their movements, listen in on their phone calls, and cut off their access to services. It’s all very Orwellian. In other words, it’s brutal, oppressive, and only possible to maintain through the use of terror tactics and state propaganda that spreads disinformation and uses doublethink to deny the truth. In Orwellian worlds, “war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength”. I could add that year-long wars are ‘special military operations’ and genocidal occupation is ‘liberation’.

Anyway, this whole discussion got me thinking about other characters and ideas from literature that have passed into everyday speech, so this is the first in what will be a short series looking at this whole area.

Orwell isn’t the only author whose surname now has an adjectival form. Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and is most famous for his novels The Trial and The Metamorphosis. His work fuses elements of realism and the fantastic and typically features isolated protagonists facing bizarre, surreal predicaments and incomprehensible bureaucratic powers. He generally explores themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, confusion, fear and absurdity, and so it is that we often describe processes that seem nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality as Kafkaesque.

We hear that people applying for visas or asylum here are subject to Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays; automated telephone banking systems and helplines that force us to spend hours listening to endless options – never able to talk to a real human being – often feel hopelessly Kafkaesque; and anyone who’s ever tried to edit or correct information on Wikipedia will know how Kafkaesque the whole process is.

Closer to home for me is Charles Dickens, a writer who spent much of his life in London and who captured as well as any of his peers the seedy underbelly of the city and the lives of those who inhabit it. The adjective Dickensian technically means ‘reminiscent of his novels’ and you do sometimes read about things like ‘a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree‘ or see claims that ‘Dickensian puddings are the quintessential cold-weather dessert’.

However, far more commonly, we use Dickensian to talk about the darker sides of urban life and squalid poverty in particular. One of the most noticeable features of London life even today is the way that obscene wealth exists cheek by jowl with Dickensian poverty. When sweatshops get raided by the police, people are often shocked by the Dickensian working conditions; and TripAdvisor reviews might note that the bathrooms in a particularly grim hotel were positively Dickensian – no hot water and grime everywhere!

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Shakespeare. Often just called the Bard and revered as England’s greatest ever writer, Shakespeare’s work has resulted in many of his more memorable turns of phrase becoming part and parcel of the language (which is in itself perhaps a post for another time). Given this, it’s not surprising that you might hear excellent prose, dramatic character arcs, or insightful dialogue dubbed Shakespearean if done well enough.

On top of that, we often talk about certain stories being Shakespearean tragedies if they contain enough suffering, greed, and calamity. I read a news article recently that claimed ‘the drama surrounding Facebook is positively Shakespearean‘, and was amused to read a friend rant about the way that LinkedIn was ‘a global lying competition, with positively Shakespearean levels of bullshit and insincerity, but with none of the irony’.

Right. That’s it for now. I’m hoping to be back before too long with a couple of follow-up posts.

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2 Responses

  1. George B. says:

    I remember how amused my British director was when I misspoke and said ‘Kafkian’ – like Dickensian or Shakespearean. Interesting how adjectives get formed! There’s a dish whose name includes ‘putanesca’ or something of this nature, but I do hope that the humanity will never say ‘Putinesque’ for this suffix is too pretty for the monster.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      It already exists, I’m afraid. Here’s just one example from a newspaper headline last year – Boris Johnson accused of using ‘Putinesque’ tactics by staging protocol row with EU!!

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