Ever been stuck in a no-win situation? A ridiculous double-bind? Found yourself hamstrung by bureaucracy? Maybe you’ve been charged a fee for not having enough money in your account, or found yourself unable to get a job without any experience, or denied tenancy in a new apartment without a current personal address. You might have called the situation a “catch-22”, even if you’ve never read the book that gave us the term (maybe you never even knew it was from a book, no judgement!). So many words and idioms slip into our language, but how often do we really know where they come from? Check out these seven books that gave us words and catch phrases we use every day.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
A catch-22 is widely understood to mean a predicament where the very nature of the problem prevents it from being resolved. It originated with Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22: the main character, Yossarian, wants to be excused from flying any more missions in the military (because every time he pilots a military plane, he risks death). He finds himself butting up against “catch-22”: pilots who are declared mentally unfit do not have to fly any more missions, but pilots who request to be declared mentally unfit are clearly of sound mind (as they want to avoid dying), so they must fly. Fun fact: the book might have actually been called Catch-18 (sounds funny, doesn’t it?), as that was Heller’s original title, but he and his publisher agreed to change it when other novels featuring the number eighteen in their title appeared around the same time. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
If someone is referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”, generally we understand that they have two distinct personalities: one gentle, refined and well-behaved, the other hedonistic, violent and hostile. This is lifted directly from the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the well-respected Dr Jekyll invents a scientific process by which he morphs into Mr Hyde, allowing him to indulge his aberrant urges without fear of losing face. Read my full review of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde here.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I had to triple-check this, because it didn’t seem right, but believe it or not it was Dickens who gave us the word “boredom”! English-speakers had been using the word “bore” for about a century, but Dickens was the first to turn the feeling into a noun. It appeared in his 1853 novel Bleak House. How on Earth could we have lived without a word for that? Thank you, Dickens!
Cabbages and Kings by O. Henry
What would you call a tropical nation with an unstable government and an over-reliance on the export of a single product? A “banana republic”, of course! The term is drawn from the novel Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it is set in the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” in Central America. The Republic’s primary export was – you guessed it – bananas. Funnily enough, the title of the book was itself drawn from The Walrus and The Carpenter, a poem that appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
I still remember my mother explaining to me the meaning of the phrase “a pot calling the kettle black”. As I recall, she said that it meant to accuse someone of something that you’re doing yourself – which is pretty much spot on. What she didn’t tell me (not that I blame her) was that the idiom was popularised by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote back in the 17th century. He lifted it from the common understanding at the time that both pots and kettles made of cast-iron would get black with soot in the kitchens of the era. It’s pretty enduring as far as idioms go, because we still use it today, some four centuries later! Read my full review of Don Quixote here.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Remember I mentioned Alice in Wonderland just before? Well, it warrants its very own spot in this list of books that gave us words and catch phrases! Among a whole bunch of funny turns-of-phrase (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head”) we get “mad as a hatter” – meaning seriously bonkers! Well, to put it more politely, someone is “mad as a hatter” if they’re behaving erratically, speaking nonsense, or displaying any kind of unusual behaviour. Carroll borrowed the idea from a well-known phenomenon of hat manufacturers being struck down with mercury poisoning (yes, that was a thing). In so doing, he created his character The Mad Hatter, and a phrase that was cemented into the English language. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.
1984 by George Orwell
A lot of the words and catch phrases from 1984 are getting extra air-time at the moment, as a lot of Orwell’s predictions seem to be coming eerily true. Of course, we all understand the concept of “Big Brother” – the totalitarian dictator, always watching and thus completely controlling his society. Orwell also created “Newspeak”, a fictional language that gave us gems like “doublethink” (being able to hold two contrary or opposing ideas at the very same thing). We really do owe him a lot!
Even if you never read a single one of these books that gave us words and catch phrases, at least you can give a smug smile every time you use one, knowing that you’ll be able to explain the origins of them if anyone asks (and even if they don’t!). Are there any words or catch phrases from literature that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments (or use them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
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June 29, 2018 at 5:42 PM
Great and original post.
Literature really affects us in all sorts of ways. As you point out here. It effects language and conversation. Your reference to Orwell is particularly interesting. He really gave us a whole set of worlds and phrases “Big Brother”, “Newspeak”, “Freedom is Slavery”, to talk about totalitarian.
June 29, 2018 at 6:05 PM
Exactly!! I’m noticing Orwell a lot in the language I use and read/hear lately, given the current political climate. “Doublethink” is another one that comes up a lot…
July 1, 2018 at 11:07 AM
I loved this. I can’t think of any others right now, but next time I see, or hear, one it will dawn on me to take notice because of this post. ☺
July 1, 2018 at 1:41 PM
Hahaha awesome, be sure to come back and let me know when you find one!!
July 2, 2018 at 11:34 AM
Thanks for this enlightening post. I always learn something from your blog. I’m glad Catch 22 was the decided title, since Catch 18 just doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue quite the same, although what we’re used to carries weight. I read Bleak House once for Uni, and had no idea about the invention of boredom. My first thought was, ‘how apt,’ but that’s a bit rough. It was an OK classic, but the court case dragged on a bit at times. If boredom was coined by Dickens then, I wonder what they used to to call it. ‘Mad as a hatter’ shows that Lewis Carroll wasn’t completely random when he wrote Alice. Those poor guys with their mercury poisoning 🙁 I love knowing the background of old idioms and proverbs, and the fact that they keep being said with total obliviousness is great.
July 2, 2018 at 2:51 PM
I love knowing the funny histories and origin stories as well! I’m always blown away by how clever Carroll actually was, it seems to me very little in Alice was accidental or truly random, everything has buried meaning somewhere. Glad I could bring a few fun facts into your world 😉
July 4, 2018 at 6:17 PM
Dickens, boredom, really? Well that is my piece of education for the day. That is one of life’s irreplaceable words, well done Dickens.
July 4, 2018 at 10:45 PM
I know, right?! Where would we be without it?! 😉
July 5, 2018 at 9:37 AM
How nice. Makes one wonder how many words we take for granted while reading a book and in fact have been used for the first time in the very book we are reading. Makes one eager to continue your journey and collect and count neologisms in novels. But that would be a bit quixotic, wouldn’t it be not? [ eh eh eh]
My contribution to the list is ROBOT. Word that we owe to the Čapek brothers, it appeared for the first time in “R.U.R.” by Karel Čapek (1920).
Anyway, I also remember that many words and expressions in Italian language has been “invented” in 1930s, several by Gabriele D’Annunzio. Concerning the English language I just know that Shakespeare has been said to have invented 1000/2000 words. Which doesn’t make sense, really. Far too many. Probably it is just that they are not found in writing before his plays. Whatever.
That reminds me of a bit in one of the funny mockumentary featuring the hilariuos character of Philomena Cunk. Here the bit, 1 minute worth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8jZs_kjDWM
The whole Cunk on Shakespeare is about 28 minutes. Not sure if it is available in Australia, but I fell in love with the Cunk character watching Cunk on Britain on youtube so I recommend to check her out.
July 5, 2018 at 2:16 PM
Hahahahaha yes, I’d forgotten about robot! Where would we be without it? And thank you also for the recommendation, I’ll check it out!! <3