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It may sound like a brand name for a fizzy soft drink, but it appeared as a serious creation around the middle of the nineteenth century as a literary term. It describes a story with a theme like that of Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 work, Robinson Crusoe, about a castaway on a tropical island.

In the early days, it seems to have been a favourite of writers for Blackwood’s Magazine. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example from that journal is dated 1847: “These outcasts from civilisation, the adventures of most of whom would furnish abundant materials for a Robinsonade.” But the term was coined in German, by the writer Johann Gottfried Schnabel, in 1731, and it was also known earlier in French, for example in Frédéric Schoell’s 1824 Histoire de la littérature Grecque profane.

In modern times, it is moderately common in literary criticism as a description of works in which a hero is snatched without warning from the comforts of civilisation and must attempt to survive in difficult circumstances through his wits and personal qualities. The Swiss Family Robinson, Coral Island, Lord of the Flies, and Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before are all in their own ways examples of the type.

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

Page created 24 Feb 2007