Myth Trivia: The descriptive words of Rudyard Kipling

Myth Trivia: The descriptive words of Rudyard Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling had a way of taking words and employing them in a way that made them part of our English language today.

John Barrymore starred as Svengali in this 1931 film, based on the novel "Trilby" by George du Maurier. But Rudyard Kipling really made the word famous. (Uncopyrighted PR image via Wikipedia)

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Nov. 11, 2015 – Perhaps no author was more adept at creating names that brilliantly personified his characters than Charles Dickens. Just think of Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Bumble and Oliver Twist.

By the same token, Rudyard Kipling was a wordsmith of the first order who employed numerous expressions and terms that have become commonplace in the lexicon of everyday English.

Take the word “jungle” for example. While there are many meanings for that term, including chaos, confusion, complexity, mess, tangle or web, the word is also the perfect description of a tropical forest. Thus “The Jungle Book,” written by Kipling in 1894, simplifies in three words what might normally take pages to describe.

Born in Bombay, India –today called Mumbai — Kipling was one of the most popular short-story writers, poets and novelists in 19th and 20th century England. Henry James said, “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known.”

In 1907, Kipling distinguished himself as the first English language writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Today, more than a century later, he remains the youngest recipient in that category to date.

With that background in mind, it seems appropriate today to examine some of the descriptive words and phrases Rudyard Kipling employed in descriptions we take for granted today.

1 – Just-so story: We have all heard that phrase even it we do not know what a just-so story is. A “just-so story” is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.”

The term comes from Kipling’s book of children’s stories in 1902. It contained amazing accounts of how various things, especially animals, evolved, such as “how the camel got his hump” and “how the leopard got his spots.” In the original editions, Kipling also did his own illustrations.

Kipling’s tales are fictional, of course. But they are purposely intended to explain in an imaginary way how certain animals derived their distinctive characteristics.

In January 1910, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton wrote an article in the Chronicle Review using a take-off on Kipling’s story titles. The article was entitled “How the Scientist Got His Ideas,” to which point the authors wrote, “But these days, some of the most frequent and pungent disparagements of Kipling have been delivered not by defenders of political correctness, or even by the gatekeepers of literary greatness, but by, of all people, biologists, for whom ‘just-so story’ has become a phrase of opprobrium.”

Thus has the term “just-so story” evolved over the past century.

“Opprobrium,” BTW, is defined as “criticism, condemnation, vilification” and other associated synonyms.

2 — Squiggly: This is such a deliciously descriptive word that it seems it should have always been part of our vocabulary. Mention it to children and they will immediately understand what you are talking about, even if they have never heard the word.

We return to the “Just-So Stories,” this time to the 1907 edition.

Kipling wrote, “The squiggly things on the Parsee’s hat are the rays of the sun reflected in more-than-oriental splendour (“splendor” in U.S. usage), because if I had real rays they would have filled up all the picture.”

While “squiggly” might not give you a problem, what exactly is a “parsee”? According to Webster, that’s “a member of a Zoroastrian sect in India.”

“Squiggly” may have derived from the earlier word “squiggle,” which originally had to do with wavy or intricate embroidery. Later it came to mean, “to squirm and wriggle,” or “to move about like an eel,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

3 – Svengali: George du Maurier introduced the fictional character Svengali in his 1895 novel “Trilby.”  In that tale, Svengali seduces a young English girl named Trilby and makes her into a famous singer. In the process, however, he dominates and exploits his victim for his own evil purposes.

Enter Rudyard Kipling, who used the word in “A Diversity of Creatures” (1917): “I’m glad Zvengali’s back where he belongs.” In Kipling’s writing the word was used to describe a “dog with a mesmeric stare.”

Du Maurier’s fictional Svengali was a devious, wicked hypnotist. But Kipling’s use of the word gave that name its own sinister identity. Today, a “Svengali” has come to mean “a person who, with evil intent, tries to persuade another to do what is desired.”

So look into my eyes. You are getting sleepy – sleeepy – sleeeepy… And we’ll be back with more trivia next week.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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