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The Name of the Category

Here the category is imaginative writing in narrative form, thus what in English we call novels and characterize as fiction. With the help of various etymological dictionaries, we are now prepared to amuse the reader by revealing how these words originated and how they took root in various departments of the West.

Fiction. This word dates to the fourteenth century and originally meant something invented. The root is the Latin fictionem, meaning something fashioned or, closer to the intent, something feigned. That word, in turn, came from fingere, meaning to shape, devise, form—indeed, again, to feign; but the oldest meaning of it was to knead shapes out of dough, and looking at that context any writer will nod and say, “That’s more like it. Roll up the sleeves. This is real work.” The use of fiction as a category of literature arose in the late sixteenth century.

The Novel. This word is of later formation and has its roots in the Latin novella for “new things.” That word was used in the sixteenth century as an Italian word for a short story. Novellas were short stories referred to as parts of a collection of such. In the mid-seventeenth century the word novel was used to refer to books that, until that time, had been called romances. Had been and, you might say, continued to be so called and, indeed, are still so called. The first reference to a novelist, the writer, occurred in 1728, taken over from the Italian novellista.

The Romance. The romance is the oldest designation for what we call fiction today, dating to around 1300. The word originally had a linguistic context. Romanz once designated a work as having been written in the vernacular language of France, thus not in Latin at all. As applied to fictional accounts, romances were initially adventure stories featuring knights and such. Not until about the middle of the seventeenth century was the word applied to a tale of love. Today that meaning has entirely conquered the word. It took a while. The verb usage is quite modern. To romance anything at all, never mind stones, did not become usage until 1942 and after.

Now it is interesting to take note of the use of these words in modern languages. The romance, but now shortened to roman, once used to mean “of or in the Roman style,” derived from the Latin Romanicus, that word is the most common term used in European languages, not least in Albanian, Czech (román), Danish, Dutch, French, German, Romanian, Russian (Роман), Swedish, and Turkish among others. The word is romaani is used in Finnish, romanzo in Italian, and romance in Portuguese. Those preferring the novel alternative are English-speakers and the Spanish (novella). The Greeks use the word mythistóri̱ma; in Hindi the word is upan’yāsa. In Hungary a novel is a regény. Going now to Asia, we have xiǎo shuō in Chinese, soseol in Korean, and shōsetsu in Japanese. Most difficult for us is Arabic. The word is roaia, but we don’t trust the transliteration and hence produce the Arabic script to make sure that we are understood. It is رواية

It took a long time to abandon story-telling in verse; the process was not uniquely European, but Europe certainly played a major role. One of the greatest novels ever written is undoubtedly The Tale of the Genji, by a lady of the Japanese court, Murasaki Shikibu, who finished it in 1021—a time when, in the West, we were still hunting for the perfect rhyme. It was a romance, it was an adventure, and, like all fiction, it was in part only too, too true.


One Response

  1. I am so sorry to say this but I find hard to admit that the French “roman” was not used for love stories until the 17th century. Having studied in old French “Le Roman de la Rose” by Guillaume de Lorris written in the 13th century (which was most definitely a love story even if it was a story of “chaste” love or “pure” love ), I have to disagree.

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