Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m told Don Quixote of La Mancha has a total of 220,939 words. It seems plausible, although every time I read it—about once a year—my impression is that it’s inexhaustible, containing not only the DNA of Hispanic civilization but its whole vocabulary. I’m wrong, of course, for no human endeavor is infinite.

At any rate, there is one word, a single one insidiously attached to it, that is thoroughly absent from its pages. In Spanish that word is “quijotesco,” an adjective that in English is taken to mean—erroneously—quixotic. (The correct translation is “quixotesque.”)

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines it as “Absurdly chivalric, like Don Quixote.” He adds that the adjective is “an insight into the beauty and excellence of this incomparable adjective is unhappily denied to him who has the misfortune to know that the gentleman’s name is pronounced Ke-ho-tay.” Bierce is being fanciful, for quixotic does not mean “absurdly chivalric,” unless it is taken to mean idealistic.

In some other languages, the equivalents are quixotic in French, donchisciottesco in Italian, quixotesco in Portuguese, quixotic in Basque, quixotesc in Catalan, 非現実的な in Japanese, קוויקסאַטיק in Yiddish, donkiszotowski in Polish, and донкихотский in Russian.

In its 1971 edition, the Oxford English Dictionary lists three words: “quixote,” “quixotic,” and quixotry.” The lexicon defines “quixote” as “an enthusiastic visionary person like Don Quixote, inspired by lofty and chivalrous but false or unrealizable ideals.”

Clearly, the Oxford dons are offering a leap of judgment: does the novel’s knight follow untrustworthy dreams? Not in his view.

Not even in the eyes of others. At the end of Part II, as the knight lies in his death bed renouncing those ideals, everyone wants him to go on, to come back to life, to remain a fool. And maybe everyone wants to be a fool just like him. Is this proof that the falsity of his dreams is essential in a world like ours, where too much realism is painful?

In any case, the OED, which, unlike the Royal Academy of Spain’s Diccionario de la lengua española, is a historical dictionary, offers what it believes to be the first appearance of a given word in print. It traces the word “quixote in English, not as a novel’s title but as a noun denoting an individual’s behavior, to 1648, which happens to be some three decades after Part II was released in English translation.

The OED defines “quixotic” as “1. Of persons: resembling Don Quixote; hence, striving with lofty enthusiasm for visionary ideas.” Here the lexicon tones down its judgmental voice, connecting enthusiasm with vision but without criticizing such attitude. And “2. Of actions, undertakings, etc. Characteristic of, appropriate to, Don Quixote.”

Finally, the OED offers “quixotry.” What? I have never heard of it. It defines it as “quixotism.” Does it mean to say that a quixotic act is a quixotry? I’m not sure, so I better leave it alone.

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster, which suggests that “quixotic” ought to be understood as “foolishly impractical,” “marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagant chivalrous action,” and “capricious, unpredictable,” offers an adverb too: quixotically. It gives several examples, among which is this one: “In this age of giant chain stores, any attempt at operating an independent bookstore must be regarded as quixotic.”

The lexicon follows its statement with a handful of synonyms: idealistic, quixotical, romantic, starry, starry-eyed, utopian, and visionary. Some of these are as far-fetched as Bierce’s definition and the indulgences of the OED, not to say fictitious. Wait—“quixotical? Again, I’m at a loss here. Perhaps, since “quixotic” is an attribute of impracticality, even irresponsibility, the lexicon makers themselves have embraced the attitude.

How did quijote in Spanish become “quixote” in English?

The first spellings in Spanish (for instance, in Miguel de Covarrubias’s Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española [1611]) are with an x. This is because in his time, spelling in the Spanish language was nothing if not erratic. (I was going to say anarchic but that assumes a defiance of authority.) Letters like x and j, s and z, weren’t always stable. Today the Royal Academy of Spain’s dictionary endorses Cervantes’s preferred j spelling, settling the issue for good.

How about English? My guess is that we English-language speakers are show-offs, dreaming of approximating foreign-language pronunciation. The first translators of Don Quijote into English sought to Anglicize the orthography of Spanish names in order to respect, to a degree possible, the original phonetics. To them “quixote sounded better than “quijote because the j would have given way to “quiyote.” (By the way, Burton Raffel, one of the 20 English-language translators, spells the name “Don Quijote”—with the j—throughout his rendition.)

In any case, the word “quixotic” ties people and characteristics that otherwise might appear to be utterly unrelated. Is Hamlet quixotic? Well, chronologically he can’t be, since Shakespeare’s play was written in 1599, six years before Part I of the Quixote was released.

Come to think of it, it is astonishing how malleable quixotic” is. One could use it to describe almost anyone who fights against an established order. I have seen it attached to names like Columbus, Galileo, Spinoza, Marx, Freud, David Ben-Gurion, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and, most recently, Nelson Mandela.

These permutations fascinate me. Quixote is among several novelistic characters whose names have become adjectives—think gargantuan, Pickwickian, Micawberish. For some reason, we don’t have words like Bovarian, Kareninean, and Buendían. Happily, we do have Quixotic, arguably the most famous one on this list, an adjective with an emblematic history.

Authors’ surnames, of course, also become adjectives: Chekhovian, Brechtian, Joycean, and Orwellian, to name a handful of examples. And Cervantean, too.



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