The Word-Hoard: Gulliver’s Travels


It’s a shame, but I think the term “classic literature” puts off a lot of readers. I know that for my part, I long considered “the classics” ponderous books to be read in school. It wasn’t until recent years that I became intellectually curious enough to really start dipping into more of “the classics.” After all, Dracula and Frankenstein may be of daunting length, and they may be adapted to death, but they’re good stories with enough fantasy elements to excite the mind of any SFF reader who can shift gears enough to appreciate an older style of writing.

I forget when it was, exactly, that I read Jonathan Swift’s seminal work, Gulliver’s Travels, but it may have been one of the few examples of classical literature that I undertook of my own initiative.

Swift coined a number of words during his time (and apparently the name “Vanessa” was an invention of his), and Gulliver’s Travels provides a few nice examples. Specifically, three of the most famous:

Lilliputian: Derived from “Lilliput,” the first land to which Gulliver travels. The people of Lilliput are miniature, and thus “Lilliputian” means very small or trivial.

“Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter: his most sublime majesty proposes to the man-mountain, lately arrived at our celestial dominions, the following articles, which, by a solemn oath, he shall be obliged to perform:—”

Brobdingnagian: Derived from “Brobdingnag,’ the second of Gulliver’s destinations. The people of Brobdingnag are humongous; they are to Gulliver as a Gulliver is to a Lilliputian. And so “Brobdingnagian” means gigantic.

To avoid which censure I fear I have run too much into the other extreme; and that if this treatise should happen to be translated into the language of Brobdingnag (which is the general name of that kingdom,) and transmitted thither, the king and his people would have reason to complain that I had done them an injury, by a false and diminutive representation.


Yahoo: It’s perhaps odd that the internet company adopted this name, which it clearly meant to associate with the exclamation of excitement that such a shout can signify. The original meaning of “yahoo” derives from Gulliver’s final travel, where he encounters a race of talking, civilized horses. In this land, there is also a race of man-like creatures called “yahoos,” who are essentially brutish sub-men.

The beast and I were brought close together, and by our countenances diligently compared both by master and servant, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide; but these differences are common to all savage nations, where the lineaments of the countenance are distorted, by the natives suffering their infants to lie grovelling on the earth, or by carrying them on their backs, nuzzling with their face against the mothers’ shoulders.  The fore-feet of the Yahoo differed from my hands in nothing else but the length of the nails, the coarseness and brownness of the palms, and the hairiness on the backs.  There was the same resemblance between our feet, with the same differences; which I knew very well, though the horses did not, because of my shoes and stockings; the same in every part of our bodies except as to hairiness and colour, which I have already described.



  1. This book is AMAZING. One of the most influential books nobody had read . . .

    I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, because the footnotes provide the historical context needed to understand a lot of Swift’s references.

    Fantastic book.

    • I don’t remember if that’s the version I read, but I remember referring to footnotes way back when. Definitely helpful! Whenever I’ve read Shakespeare they’ve been immensely helpful, too.

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