Anyone who’s been through a high school English course knows a host of literary terms, from “archetype” and “alliteration” to “satire” and “trope.” But do you know where these words come from? I’ve been writing about etymology —word origins—for about 10 years, first on my blog UselessEtymology.com, and now in a middle-grade nonfiction book Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids.
Thanks to my literary education and my journalistic professional background, I’ve done a great deal of digging into the origins of the words we use to describe fictional structure, characters, and the craft of writing.
In many cases, understanding the origins of different literary terms can even help you remember their meanings better. I know I wasn’t the only one who had trouble remembering the difference between anastrophe (the inversion of the usual order of words or clauses, Greek for “a turning back”) and anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, Greek for “reference, or literally “a carrying back”).
Nearly half of all words in the English language have Latin origins, and about half of those Latin-derived words came to English via Old French during the Norman Conquest, when the Norman French invaded England and mingled with the Anglo-Saxons. However, you’ll notice that literary terms are primarily adopted from Ancient Greek.
Only about 5% of English words come directly from Greek (though many Latin words that influenced English were borrowed or adapted from Greek). However, Greek has a tendency to show up in English in the form of academic, technical, scientific, and medical terms—words invented or co-opted by Western academics and researchers well after the rise and fall of Ancient Greece and Rome. The same is true of most literary terms, which largely arose in English during the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment periods as literacy (and the study thereof) spread across Europe.
Here are a few of the most interesting etymological sources of literary terms.
1) Protagonist & Antagonist
As most writers are well aware, your protagonist is the major player, hero(ine), or primary actor in your story—the one around whom the narrative revolves and whose journey readers are following. Think of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. The word “protagonist” was originally a theatrical term, from the Greek protagonistes, a word for the main actor in a play. It is made up of the words protos, meaning “first,” and agonistes, meaning “actor” or “competitor.” Swap protos with the prefix ant-, meaning “against” or “opposed to,” and you get your antagonist, or villain—the character acting against your primary actor. Ant- is a variation on anti-, which you find in words like antibiotic and anticlimactic.
Perhaps unexpectedly, “antagonist” is older than “protagonist,” at least in English. While “antagonist” was adopted in the late 1500s as a word meaning “one who contends with another” in any sort of sport or contest—so potentially a real person—a “protagonist” was always a performer or a fictional player in a story. Similarly, in Greek, antagonistes was a word for any sort of rival or competitor, while protagonistes was a word for a stage actor. The Greek base word of both, agon, meant “a struggle” or “a contest,” and also forms the base of the word “agony.”
The climax is the part of a story when the action, emotion, or tension reaches its most intense and dramatic peak. The climax of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People,” for example, is when the salesman Manley Pointer steals Hulga’s prosthetic leg. Because it is the height of the action or tension story, the word “climax” comes from the Greek word klimax, which literally means “ladder.”
3) Dialogue, Monologue, and Soliloquy
Dialogue can refer to a conversation in a story, a play, or between two people talking in real life. We’re all familiar with the concept of dialogue in novels (though choosing the right dialogue tags can be tricky). It’s formed of the Greek components dia, meaning “across” or “between,” and legein, meaning “to speak.” A monologue, then—with the prefix monos, or “alone”—would imply “to speak alone.”
Shakespeare’s characters, both comedic and tragic, are famed for their monologues, from Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” While both of these speeches are monologues, the latter of these two is also a soliloquy because Hamlet is not addressing anyone except himself and the audience, while Antony is addressing listeners who exist within the play. Soliloquy means “speaking to oneself,” from the Latin solus, “alone,” and loqui, “to speak.”
Hyperbole refers to an extreme exaggeration. For example, in his poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” W.H. Auden writes,
“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.”
First adopted into English in the 15th century from Latin, hyperbole is originally formed of the Greek hyper-, meaning “beyond,” and bole, meaning “a throwing” or “a casting.” Bole is the nominative stem of ballein, meaning “to throw,” from a very early proto-root meaning “to throw,” or “to reach,” which also influences words such as “ballistic,” “ballet,” “metabolism,” “parable” and “symbol.” So together, the literal meaning of “hyperbole” is “a throwing beyond.”
The English pronunciation of hyperbole (high-PER-boh-lee) comes from the Greek pronunciation (ὑπερβολή). The Greek letter eta (ή) does not correspond directly to any English vowels, so it’s usually written as an ‘e’, which results in borrowed Greek words that diverge from typical English pronunciations—think of the pronunciation of name endings like Hercules (HER-kyoo-leez) spelled Ηρακλής).
5) Metaphor and Simile
A metaphor is a direct comparison between two things, without the use of “like” or “as.” For example, in The Storm, Kate Chopin writes, “Her mouth was a fountain of delight.” And in The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft writes, “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.
The word “metaphor” as adopted into English in the late 15th century from the Middle French metaphore, which in turn came from the Latin metaphora. Its original source, however is the Greek metaphora, meaning “a transfer,” or literally “a carrying across,” from meta-, “over, across,” and pherein, “to carry.” The comparison “carries” the definition across, allowing the reader to understand the intended meaning of the words rather than the literal meaning.
A simile is a comparison that does use “like” or “as.” For example, in East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes, “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” And from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” The word “simile” arose in the early 15th century, from the Latin similis, meaning “like” or “resembling.” Predictably, it is related to the word “similar.”
A Bonus Etymology fact:
Unlike the majority of literary terms, plot is not derived from Greek or Latin. Instead, it comes from the Old English word plot, which first meant (and still means) a small piece of land. Its origins beyond that are unknown, but its meaning extended from “small piece of land” to a plan for building or growing on a plot of land, which led into the notion of “mapping” or “charting” something—first a physical area of land or water in the 1550s, and then in the 1640s, the storyline of a book.
Jess Zafarris is the author of Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids. She is also an award-winning innovator of digital content and marketing solutions and a prolific online and print journalist, having served as the Executive Director of Marketing & Communications for Gotham Ghostwriters. Before that, she served as Digital Content Director and Content Strategist for Writer’s Digest and Script, and she still occasionally writes for WD. Her nine years of experience in digital and print content direction and marketing include such roles as editor-in-chief of HOW magazine and online content director of HOW and PRINT magazines, as well as writing for the The Hot Sheet, the Denver Business Journal, ABC News, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. She has a bachelors in English Literature (with minors in Arabic and Anthropology) from DePaul University and a masters in Journalism & Mass Communications from the University of Colorado Boulder. She spends much of her spare time researching curious word histories and writing about them at UselessEtymology.com. Follow her at @jesszafarris or @uselessety on Twitter, or on Instagram at @uselessetymology.