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Pronounced /brɒbdɪŋˈnæɡɪən/Help with pronunciation

It is given to only a limited number of people to add a word to the language, or at least to have been given the credit for doing so. But Jonathan Swift originated eight in his most famous and enduring book, Gulliver’s Travels, of 1726.

The second part of the book, in which Lemuel Gulliver meets the huge inhabitants of Brobdingnag, has bequeathed us this awkward adjective that refers to a gigantic person or thing; these days it can be used for anything huge, not just people. Here’s a typical example of its use, from The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs: “When compared to the relatively small red man and his breed of thoats they assume Brobdingnagian proportions that are truly appalling”.

The title page of the first edition of 'Gulliver's Travels'
The title page of the first edition of Gulliver's Travels

His satirical descriptions of the political vices and follies of the miniature people of Lilliput suggested Lilliputian for people who may be small either in stature or in mind. That race’s tedious and irrelevant arguments over which is the right end from which to eat an egg have led to big-endian and little-endian for controversies over nothing at all; both terms have been taken up in recent decades by computer scientists to describe ways of organising digital data.

One of the more common of all his invented words from the book is yahoo for the race of brutes in the shape of men in a later part of the book, which has survived as an abusive term for any person considered uncivilised. The race of intelligent horses in the same section also gave us the rare word houyhnhnm, which Swift invented to echo the sound of a neigh. Yet another unusual term is Struldbrug (with its even less common adjective Struldbruggian), for the race of people, unable to die, who survived in a state of senseless decrepitude, a fate which has become one of the great fears of modern life. Yet another rarity is Laputan, in reference to the flying island of Laputa whose inhabitants were addicted to visionary projects; hence its modern meaning of something so inventive or imaginative as to be absurd.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 12 Jun 1999