More fictional characters who appear in everyday English

After the positive reception that my last post on literary figures in everyday speech got, I figured it made sense to write a follow-up exploring the way the names of some more fictional characters are used in daily conversation. Today, we’ll look at five famous characters and consider how they’ve passed into the language.

First up is one of the most iconic detectives of all time – Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes is famous for his powers of observation and deduction, his razor-sharp mind, and his logical reasoning. He’s also been portrayed countless times on TV and in films.

His name has become a byword for quick-witted people who work out things that others struggle to, so you hear examples like:

Did you work out the answer to that all on your own? Jesus! You’re a right little Sherlock (Holmes), you are, aren’t you?

Look, I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I think I know who wrote that letter.

However, when we want to point out that the conclusions someone has drawn are little more than stating the bleedin’ obvious, we often use the ironic phrase No shit, Sherlock! For example:

What? They carried out a whole study just so they could tell us that underpaid workers aren’t massively motivated by the idea of making yet more money for shareholders? No shit, Sherlock!

‘Biden warns Israel warns Israel risks losing support over indiscriminate Gaza bombing‘? Well, I guess you can file that headline under ‘No shit, Sherlock!’

One other curious phrase that the Sherlock Holmes series has gifted us is Elementary, my dear Watson. It’s widely believed that Holmes used the phrase when explaining to his friend Dr. Watson how easy it was for him to understand something. In fact, it doesn’t appear in any of the stories, but this hasn’t stopped it being used to emphasise how simple a solution to a particular problem is.

With complex problems like this, you have to break them down into smaller, simpler ones. Elementary, my dear Watson!

What happened to his WhatsApp messages? Elementary, my dear Watson. He obviously paid a lot of money to get someone who’s very good at these kinds of things to delete all trace of them!

Next up is a character created around the same time as Sherlock Holmes – Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde first published his philosophical novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891, and the story revolves around a portrait of the main character that was painted by a friend of his who’s infatuated with his beauty. Dorian is soon introduced to Lord Henry Wotton, and finds himself enthralled by the aristocrat’s hedonistic worldview and belief that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life. Dorian comes to understand that his beauty will fade and thus expresses his desire to sell his soul so that his painting will age, but he won’t. This wish is granted and Dorian goes on to lead a libertine life whilst staying young and beautiful, and all the while, the portrait in the attic ages and becomes a visual record of each and every one of his many sins.

His name is often used to describe people who don’t seem to age, who still look exactly the same as they did in their youth, so you hear things like this:

Sean doesn’t seem to have changed at all. He still looks exactly the same as he did 30 years ago. He’s a right Dorian Gray. He must have a portrait up in the attic somewhere.

Cher is like the female Dorian Gray. I know she’s had a lot of work done, but still! She just never seems to age.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘ was a 1939 short story by the American author James Thurber that deals with a day in the life of the protagonist in the title. Walter Mitty is a vague, mild-mannered man and we encounter him driving his wife into town in their home state of Connecticut for the weekly shop and her visit to the beauty parlour. Across the course of the day, he has five heroic daydreams, each inspired by some detail of his otherwise mundane surroundings. For instance, as he drives past a hospital, he imagines himself to be a cutting-edge surgeon performing a unique kind of surgery.

This is why we can describe someone who’s basically pretty ineffectual, and spends more time in heroic daydreaming than paying attention to the everyday world as a bit of a Walter Mitty character – or Mittyesque. It’s also often used to describe the likes of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson – men who intentionally attempt to mislead or convince others that they are something they’re clearly not. Here are some examples:

He was a bigamist, an ex-con and such a fantasist that he would’ve made Walter Mitty blush.

The ‘Walter Mitty’ Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police has been suspended from duty.

You’ve had chance to do your research but still believe this is just a few mistakes, based on what your lying, Walter Mittyesque mate has fed you.

The Prime Minister is currently inhabiting a Mittyesque fantasy world.

First published in 1818, Frankenstein was written by English author Mary Shelley and tells the story of a young scientist who creates a thinking, feeling creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Many people forget that the title refers to the scientist not the monster, and the way we generally use the word in everyday English reflects this as it often describes something that destroys or harms the people who created it.

In arming the mujahideen fighting the Soviets, the US unwittingly created a Frankenstein.

The organisation has become a Frankenstein’s monster beyond the control of those who created it.

If you were going to do a Frankenstein and put a footballer together from scratch, you’d basically just build Messi.

You also see Frankenstein used an adjective quite a lot to describe things seen as monstrous creations, so foodstuffs that have been genetically modified are sometimes called Frankenstein foods. This is particularly common in newspaper headlines that want to catch your eye and maybe whip up a few fears. Here are a few examples:

Jittery Europeans have had their fill of ‘Frankenstein Food’

GM crops: Public fears over ‘Frankenstein food’ may be easing, a new poll reveals.

Frankenstein Foodstakes a claim in the meat sector

The Prince of Wales warns ministers of ‘Frankenstein food’ fears

In the same way, you might see Covid conspiracy types refer to Frankenstein illnesses, or see scientific work that people feel is unethical getting called Frankenstein research.

I’ve even seen to Frankenstein as a verb: When a football manager has to Frankenstein a team together, it doesn’t usually work out in the first season.

Talking of monsters, we now come to our final character for this post. Well, in fact, it’s really two characters rolled into one: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This gothic horror novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson also appeared at the tail eld of the nineteenth century, and reflects many of the concerns of the Victorian era, dealing as it does with themes of the duality of human nature, and the inner struggle between good and evil.

In the story, Dr Jekyll is a kind, well-respected, intelligent scientist who meddles with the dark side of science, as he wants to explore – and then destroy – his ‘second’ nature. He does this through transforming himself into Mr Hyde – his evil alter ego who refuses to accept responsibility for his terrible crimes. Jekyll tries to control Hyde, and for a while, he has the power, but towards the end of the novel, Hyde takes over and this results in the deaths of both characters.

In everyday speech, a Jekyll and Hyde character can be someone who’s sometimes very pleasant (Jekyll) but at other times – especially when drunk – very unpleasant (Hyde), but it also has a broader meaning of someone who just leads two very separate lives. For example:

He’s got a Jekyll and Hyde personality and turns into a bit of a monster after a few drinks.

My old boss was a real Jekyll and Hyde. Sometimes she’d be really kind and charming, and then at other times she’d be rude and obnoxious.

He leads an almost Jekyll and Hyde existence — by day he’s an accountant, and by night he plays guitar in a thrash metal band.

Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

– Do you have a favourite fictional detective? What do you like about them?

– When was the last time you thought – or could’ve said – No shit, Sherlock!?

– Can you think of anyone who’s a bit of a Dorian Gray kind of character? Do you know what their secret is?

– Have you ever come across anyone who’d make even Walter Mitty blush?

– Do you think GM foods deserve to be dubbed Frankenstein foods? Why? / Why not?

– Do you know anyone who has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde personality? In what way?

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2 Responses

  1. How has Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, influenced everyday language and communication? regard Telkom University

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Is that not clear from this blog post? I mean, the whole first part is about the way we use his name and phrases connected to this.

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