Burnt Toast Editorial

Writing that smokes

What do olives and Charles Dickens have in common? The #wonkyword oleaginous.

What do olives and Charles Dickens have in common? The #wonkyword oleaginous.

Here’s another glorious #wonkyword – oleaginous. As you pronounce (olee-a-gee-nus) it’s hard to resist elongating and savouring the sound of this elastic adjectival word.

Its etymological origin is Middle English from the French oléagineux and the Latin oleaginous (“of the olive tree”) and its meaning is two-fold:

1) rich in, covered with, or producing oil;

2) unctuous, exaggeratedly complimentary, fawning, smarmy.

Thus, oleaginous is a perfect combination of meaning and descriptive representation.

Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is arguably the most powerful depiction of someone who’s oleaginous. When Dickens’ eponymous hero first encounters Heep, Dickens holds nothing back in his descriptive powers:

“Heep’s face was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.”

“He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.”

Like many of Dickens’ villains, Heep is motivated mainly by greed; yet embodied in his character there’s a commentary on the English class system. As the plot of David Copperfield unfolds Heep eventually reveals his lifelong resentment at being the object of charity and low expectations. His thwarted ambition is the driving force behind his cunning and villainy.

Much of Dickens’ fiction was inspired by personal experience and scholars have attributed the inspiration for Uriah Heep as either Hans Christian Andersen, ¹ whom the author met in 1847 shortly before writing David Copperfield or more likely Thomas Powell, a friend of Dickens’ ne’er do well brother Augustus and an employee of Thomas Chapman, a friend of the author. Powell apparently ” … ingratiated himself into the Dickens household” and was duly discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled £10,000 from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in a number of pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens’ social class and background. ²  So quite a step from olives to embezzlement!

¹ Hawes, Dennis, Who’s Who in Dickens, (Routledge), 1998, p. 109.

² “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens” see http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Gallery/g322.htm

Click here for a biography of Charles Dickens at the BBC website.

Click here for information about the actor Bransby Williams.

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