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Following our post about words from Harry Potter, we will spend the next few weeks taking a look at words that originate in Literature. These words are often taken from the names of characters and are used to describe people with similar traits. First up: Quixotic.

The word quixotic is an adjective used to describe someone (or something) so idealistic that their aspirations are unrealistic and impractical. It originates from the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the book was published in two volumes – the first in 1605, and the second in 1615. It is regarded as the most influential work from the Spanish Golden Age and is sometimes referred to as ‘the first novel’. When Cervantes was writing, there were chivalric romances, pastoral romances, picaresque lives (which are often erroneously referred to as ‘picaresque novels’), and ‘nouvelle’, which were long short stories. The modern novel – the long prose narrative – derives from the hugely successful translations of Don Quixote which appeared in France and England shortly after its initial publication in Spain; these translations, and attempts to imitate their success, led to the novel taking its modern form in the 18th century.

Don Quixote, in the novel, is actually a not-especially-well-off gentleman of the lower nobility who, after reading too many chivalric romances, goes mad and decides to put on a suit of rusty armour, climb aboard his stick-thin horse, and go off in search of adventure and opportunities to prove his heroism. The narrative consists of his adventures with his ‘squire’, a commoner called Sancho Panza mounted on a donkey. One famous passage describes his encounter with a group of windmills which he mistakes for giants: charging them, Don Quixote’s lance is swatted by one of the giant’s ‘arms’ (it becomes stuck in a sail), and he is flung from his saddle to the ground.

‘Quixote’ is not pronounced as you might think (‘kwick-zoat’), but, in modern Spanish, is pronounced ‘ki-ho-tay’ (with a short ‘o’, as in ‘hot’). When Cervantes was writing, however, the Spanish ‘j’ (which, as we know from words like ‘jalapeno’, is pronounced with a ‘ha’ sound) was still progressing towards that ‘ha’ sound from a ‘sh’ sound. A word like ‘Mexico’, in 17th century Spanish, would have been pronounced ‘Meshico’. In France, ‘Don Quixote’ is still pronounced with that ‘sh’ sound for the ‘x’, as ‘Don Kishoat’.

‘Don Quixote’ is important in terms of the development of the Spanish language, in part because it emerged from the precise period when the language was first being codified. In 1611 (right in between the publication of the two volumes), the lexicographer Sebastián de Covarrubias compiled the very first dictionary of the Spanish language. ‘Spain’, as a political entity, was still a relatively new phenomenon - the union of the historic kingdoms of Castile and Aragon into one entity called ‘Spain’ had only occurred a little over a hundred years previously.

What do you think your name might be used to describe? We’d love to hear!

Avani Shah


22 Aug 2013
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