18 September 2019

Language in Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula decades ago, then placed it on the "reread someday" bookshelf; that someday arrived this summer.

It is worth emphasizing that this is not "schlock" literature.  The plot is well-known to every consumer of culture in the Western hemisphere, but the profusion of "B" movie adaptations do not do justice to the richness of the language in the story.   The original novel is a longread, and for those with a limited vocabulary or those for whom English is a second language it may be tedious, but personally I love the sometimes convoluted sentences and extended descriptions of late Victorian novels.   By the time I finished reading, I had bookmarked a considerable number of words and phrases, which I'll share for those with similar interests:
"I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour... and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call 'impletata.'"  According to Wikipedia, forcemeat (derived from the French farcir, "to stuff") "is a mixture of ground, lean meat mixed with fat by grinding, sieving, or puréeing the ingredients."  Also interesting to me is the listing of paprika as a main breakfast item rather than just a flavoring.  "The trade in paprika expanded from the Iberian Peninsula to Africa and Asia, and ultimately reached Central Europe through the Balkans, then under Ottoman rule, which explains the Hungarian origin of the English term... Despite its presence in Central Europe since the beginning of Ottoman conquests, it did not become popular in Hungary until the late 19th century."  A convenient way for Stoker to emphasize the exotic site of his story in the opening chapter.

"At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina..."  A four-wheeled stagecoach (familiar to anyone who has seen any of the movies).  The word is French.

"... a caleche, with four horses, drove up behind us..."  More commonly called a barouche, is another four-wheeler.

"I was conscious of the presence of the Count, and of his being as if lapped in a storm of fury."  If in the sense of a hem or border, this would suggest "being surrounded by" - maybe.  A bit obscure.  [note from a reader: "lap" in Dutch means a big sheet of cloth, which fits with the "wrapping up" meaning.]

"I am surely in the toils."  Trapped.  Early 16th century (denoting a net into which a hunted quarry is driven): plural of toil, from Old French toile ‘net, trap’.

"My dear, I am somewhat previous."  In context, being premature, or getting ahead of oneself in relating a story. 

"He will not admit anything, and downfaces everybody."  (transitive, archaic, rare) to persist boldly in an assertion.  Modernized to "face down."

"As there is no motive for concealment, I am permited to use them, and accordingly send you a rescript, simply omitting technical details..."  A copy- literally "re-write."

"We had a capital "severe tea" at Robin Hood's Bay in a sweet little old-fashioned inn..."  Presumably a harsh or bitter tea ???.  Maybe some Brit will have better knowledge of how this word applies to tea.

"We beg to acknowledge [amount] received and to return cheque... 17s. 9d, amount of overplus, as shown in receipted account herewith."  Overpayment.  From over- + Anglo-Norman plus, Middle French plus.

"... the edges [of the puncture wound] were white and worn-looking, as if by some trituration."  From the Latin, conventionally "to grind to a fine powder," but I also found "to break up biological tissue into individual cells via passage through a narrow opening such as a hypodermic needle."

"It would at once frighten him and enjealous him, too."  To make jealous (archaic).

"I have left to me neither chick nor child; all are gone, and in my will I have left you everything."  Chick can mean child (especially female one), but why pair it with child?

"Together we moved over to the bed, and I lifted the lawn from her face..."  Later: "... we could see that the lips were crimson with fresh blood, and that the stream had trickled over her chin and stained the purity of her lawn death-robe."  A type of thin linen or cotton (named after a French town).

"We shook hands, and he was so earnest and so kind that it made me quite choky."  Presumably "choked up."

"Holding his candle so that he could read the coffin plates, and so holding it that the sperm dropped in white patches which congealed as they touched the metal..."  Candle wax, obviously.  A physical resemblance of the drippings of a white candle to human sperm is a possible association, but candle wax in this era was also derived from the oil in the head of sperm whales.  So, to if you want to enliven the conversation at the next dinner party at a table with candleabra, just announce that you see some sperm on the tablecloth...

"... I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder [of a dictation "phonograph"].  I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary..." Perfectly logical but seldom seen use of typewrite as a verb (and a usage that is destined never to come back into vogue).  Manifold in this context would be the Victorian equivalent of carbon paper.

"To use an Americanism, he had 'taken no chances'...  I had no idea this is an "Americanism." ???

"It is just as that dear, good Professor Van Helsing said: he is true grit, and he improves under strain..."  Didn't know the phrase was this old.

 "... his mouth was actually nauseous with the flies and spiders which he had eaten just before Mrs. Harker entered the room."  Sickening or disgusting.

"He is a decent, intelligent fellow, distinctly a good, reliable type of workman, and with a headpiece of his own."  Brain, presumably.

"This was all practical, so one of the children went off with a penny to buy an envelope and a sheet of paper, and to keep the change." Getting change for a penny only sounds odd if you forget about the existence of the farthing.

"This was manifestly a prig of the first water, and there was no use arguing with him."  A dandy or arrogant person.  "First water" borrows the term for a fineness of a diamond's clarity.

"She looked at him meaningly as she spoke."  ?meaningfully

"There are, or there may be, customs and octroi officers to pass."  Local tax collector (French).

"There are great, frowning precipices and much falling water..."  Googling the term in quotes yields a variety of references in literature to precipices "frowning," but I can't quite sort out the meaning.  Presumably they tower over you in a foreboding manner??

"I fear to think of her, off on the wolds near that horrible place."  From Middle English wald, wold, from Old English (Anglian) wald (compare weald), from Proto-Germanic *walþuz, from Proto-Indo-European *wel(ə)-t- (compare Norwegian voll ‘field, meadow’, Welsh gwallt ‘hair’, Lithuanian váltis ‘oat awn’, Serbo-Croatian vlât ‘ear (of wheat)’, Ancient Greek λάσιος (lásios) ‘hairy’). See also the related term weald.  A grassland, or (obsolete) a forest.

"... the whole body began to melt away and crumble into its native dust, as though the death that should have come centures agone had at last assert himself..." Van Helsing speaking, using an archaic form of "ago."

"... every man of the gypsy party drew what weapon he carried... Issue was joined in an instant."  To enter into an argument or conflict.
And two other memorable items:
"She is going though the house, and wants to see every one in it," I answered.  "Oh, very well," he said; "let her come in,  by all means; but just wait a minute till I tidy up the place."  His method of tidying was peculiar; he simply swallowed all the flies and spiders in the boxes before I could stop him."

When he was buying property in England, Count Dracula used the alias Count de Ville."  (I wonder if he had dalmatians...)


  1. Maybe paprika here refers to fresh or dried bell peppers like it does in most languages other than English? That'd make more sense than eating spices for breakfast.

    1. You learn something every day...

      "In some languages, the term "paprika", which has its roots in the word for pepper, is used for both the spice and the fruit – sometimes referred to by their colour (for example "groene paprika", "gele paprika", in Dutch, which are green and yellow, respectively). The bell pepper is called "パプリカ" (papurika) or "ピーマン" (piiman, from Portuguese pimentão) in Japan.[7] In Switzerland, the fruit is mostly called "peperone", which is the Italian name of the fruit. In France, it is called "poivron", with the same root as "poivre" (meaning "pepper") or "piment". In Spain it is called "pimiento", the masculine form of the traditional spice, "pimienta". In South Korea, the word "피망" (pimang from the Japanese "ピーマン" (piiman)) refers to green bell peppers, whereas "파프리카" (papeurika from paprika) refers to bell peppers of other colors. In Sri Lanka it is called "maalu miris" when used as a vegetable."

      Thank you, unknown person.

  2. These are wonderful! By the way, "lap" in Dutch means a big sheet of cloth, which fits with the "wrapping up" meaning.

  3. Wonderful collection as usual! :)

    Just a couple of thoughts:
    Since "severe tea" is in qotation marks, this seems less a comment on the beverage, but rather a characterisation of the meal "tea" -- perhaps along the lines of "serious snack" or something.
    ... Someone else seems to think so, too: https://misscavendish.blogspot.com/2017/11/severe-tea-and-bram-stokers-dublin-and.html

    "Chick and child" sounds a lot like "kith and kin", only younger -- quite appropriate in the context of last wills, istn't it?

    The "frowning precipice" seems pretty straightforward, actually: main feature of a frown are contracted eyebrows -- not unlike a rock/cliff overhang.

    1. I'm wondering if chick refers to his wife. I remember in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More addressed his wife as "chick". It's been so long since I seen the play or film, I can't provide an exact citation. I must reread Dracula for the fourth time. A favorite book.

  4. There is also a contemporary Icelandic version, reworked from Stoker’s notes that has been recently translated and published: https://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2019/04/makt-myrkanna.html

  5. A lovely collection of terms, thank you.

    A decade ago I lived and worked in Romania just a few miles from Stoker's 'Borgo Pass'. It's a wonderfully scenic area and well worth a visit.

    The local term for a horse-drawn carriage was 'caleasca', close to 'caleche'. We travelled a lot with horsepower on rougher tracks, and much use was made of horses in forestry and small farms.

    Maize meal was a common dish (often eaten with cream), as in much of Romania, and 'forcemeat' was common too (often cooked in cabbage leaves or peppers). The cuisine, whilst simple, was tasty and natural.

    I have many happy memories of the people and places in that amazing region.

  6. I suspect that Stoker chose 'DeVille' as a pseudonym for Dracula for the same reason that Disney chose it for Cruella; the altered spelling of 'devil'.

  7. there is a spanish language version of the film 'dracula'. i think it is better, plot and cinematography wise, but, it does not have bela lugosi in it.


  8. if you want to delve deeper into 'dracula': https://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/dracula THE BOOKS THAT MADE DRACULA - 26 books that are almost certainly the original copies that Bram Stoker used to help research his enduring classic.



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