Welcome Word Nerds! Last week, in one of the book launch teams I’m on, we were given the task of describing ourselves using three letters—QRF—and one of the team members described herself as quixotic. That led to the inevitable question, “What does quixotic mean?”—and to my associated thought: “What a great idea for a Word Nerd post!”
Before we get into that, however, there’s the little matter of pronunciation. The term quixotic is derived from the character Don Quixote (pronounced don key-OH-tay) created by Miguel de Cervantes in his early 17th Century novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha), better known as simply Don Quixote. Hence, I have always pronounced quixotic key-OH-tic. Admittedly, I’ve pronounced it more often in my head or in writing than I have aloud, but I’ve never been corrected when I have said it out loud.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked the word up online and found every dictionary gave only one pronunciation: kwik-SOT-ik. The next thing I discovered is that there are whole forum threads devoted to people arguing the ‘correct’ pronunciation! Good grief! So I’m simply going to ask which way you pronounce it: key-OH-tic or kwik-SOT-ik?
But all of that is a diversion from the real point of this post. What does quixotic (however you pronounce it) actually mean? Well, here’s the definition according to Merriam-Webster:
Foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals; especially, marked by rash, lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.
The Cambridge Dictionary puts it slightly differently:
Having or showing ideas that are different and unusual, but not practical or likely to succeed.
And the Oxford Dictionary is the most concise of all:
Extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.
But to really understand the idea behind quixotic, I think you have to have a little bit of background to Don Quixote himself.
“In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it . . . In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practice of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame.
The term quixotic doesn’t necessarily imply the same level of overall eccentricity as Don Quixote, but it does capture his idealism, his romanticism (because a knight-errant must have a lady-love), and his tendency to see things that aren’t really there—or at the very least, to see things that are there through rose-coloured glasses. It can also imply a level of foolishness or overzealousness in an undertaking, which is hardly surprising when you consider some of Don Quixote’s adventures:
• tilting (jousting) at windmills (because they looked like giants);
• attacking a man who came to a well for water (because Don Quixote was guarding someone else’s armour there);
• defending his lady-love’s honour when strangers he met on the road wouldn’t declare her the fairest lady in the world (his lady-love wasn’t actually with him or known to these men);
• mistaking two flocks of sheep kicking up dust for two mighty armies meeting on the battle field, and entering the fray on behalf of the ‘weaker side’.
The original novel (and its English translation) is a hefty tome, weighing in at almost 1,000 pages depending on your edition, but my kids have always been delighted by Marcia Williams’ retelling of the story, told in a modified comic-strip form. Unfortunately, I think this title is out of print now, but it was worthwhile finding a second hand copy for our family. 🙂
So, how you do pronounce quixotic? And have you ever had occasion to use it?
And for those who are wondering, the answer to last week’s ‘What Do You Think It Means?’ with Cacoethes was (A) – An urge to do something inadvisable. Probably a state Don Quixote was well acquainted with, whether he knew it or not!