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Four great adjectives with literary origins

Richard Bell

Literature boffins love to explain that the fairly well-established name Wendy was popularised by Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie, or that the word ‘malapropism’ comes from the loquaciously clumsy character Mrs. Malaprop, who appears in the 1775 play The Rivals written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, but what about the great adjectives for which we have the names of authors to thank?

Here are some of the most  commonly occurring adjectives that we owe to the great writers of the last 200 years:


Taking the foremost definition of this word, it’s simply used to describe anything that shares similarities with the poetry of Lord Byron, one of the leading figures of the Romanic movement that dominated British literature in the first half of the 19th Century.

To call something Byronic is to explain that it is darkly alluring or mysterious, but the term is perhaps most commonly applied to male characters that fulfil the somewhat moody and cynical criteria of the ‘Byronic hero’.


Despite being one of the most prolific and important writers of the 19th Century, Charles Dickens is arguably one of those authors who everyone today knows but no one actually bothers to read. Still, the word Dickensian – used to describe poor social or working conditions, or merry scenes of conviviality – is especially relevant today, given the austerity of recent years and the prevailing stoicism of the British public.


While it’s probably used most often by well-educated but moody teenagers to describe oppressive parents, everyone likes to have a go at those in charge and the word ‘Kafkaesque’ has a lovely ring to it. It is especially well suited to describing bizarre or complex situations and bureaucratic rules.

The word, of course, comes from Franz Kafka, the Bohemian writer responsible for such thought-provoking titles as The Castle, Metamorphosis and The Trial.


George Orwell penned haunting classics like Animal Farm and 1984, and several others that encouraged readers to question and criticise the way in which the world around them is run. Despite practically all of Orwell’s major works of fiction and non-fiction being written in the 1930s and ‘40s, the word Orwellian is more applicable now than ever, in light of the Digital Age and ubiquitous surveillance practices.

Richard has a First in English Literature and Creative Writing, and has experience writing fiction and short stories (which he has published both online and in magazines).

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