A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

I’ve often thought it kind of odd that vampires can only be killed by being staked through the heart.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medIn Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel Dracula, the eponymous vampire was actually slashed to – er – death with Bowie and Kukri knives. So much for Buffy’s “Mr Pointy”.  Which brings me to the (ahem) point of this post, which is actually how English changes. Know what Bram Stoker’s favourite word was? It wasn’t ‘stake’ or ‘vampire’. Let me give you some clues from Dracula (1897):

“the bright voluptuousness of much sunshine”
“the ruby of their voluptuous lips”
“a deliberate voluptuousness”
“a soft, voluptuous voice”
“voluptuous wantonness”
“a voluptuous smile”
“with a languorous, voluptuous grace”
“the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth”
“the voluptuous lips”
“voluptuous beauty”
“the voluptuous mouth”
“so exquisitely voluptuous”

Fred Saberhagen put a good deal of time into lampooning Stoker’s over-use of this particular adjective in The Dracula Tapes.

Curiously, though, the modern meaning – let’s say ‘a full-figured and attractive woman’ – isn’t the one Stoker actually used. Its earlier meaning was closer to the Latin, volupas (pleasure) – and meant something pleasurable or given to pleasure or gratification. It could mean sunlight, as Stoker indeed used it.

The lascivious overtones were there, to some extent, but not in the way they are today. I’m not sure Stoker’s book was responsible for the transition, either.

For me it underscores one of the most interesting things about English. It changes – and often without intent on anybody’s part. That says a good deal about human nature – about the way we interact, for it is only through those interactions that the language can change.

The English language is – well, how can I put it? Voluptuous.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


17 thoughts on “A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

  1. It always caused great amusement in my English class when we got to the line “gay, great, happening earth” in one poem by e.e. cummings. This is one particular word whose meaning have changed that can lead to some interesting re-interpretations of literature from an earlier era.

    1. I went to primary school with someone whose surname was Gay. A word that has changed popular meaning twice in lifetime alone. I believe the current pop meaning is not ‘happy’ or ‘homosexual’ but ‘weirdly stupid in an ironically funny way’.

  2. Describing a person as a “voluptuary” means they are pleasure seeking or enjoy their pleasures. Although granted I haven’t seen that word in I’m not sure how many decades and can’t remember where I read it. I believe the phrase as used was condemning a person for being “a shameless voluptuary.”

  3. I remember this one line from Hotel Transylvania where the human asked Dracula if a stake in the heart would kill him his answer was, “Of course. Wouldn’t that kill anyone?”

  4. Something I get from this is that writers can often get into a habit of using a certain word. One of my favorite authors is David Weber, who penned the Honor Harrington series. Even in his books outside the series many of the characters say, “And you know it.” It happens so often that I just roll my eyes when I see it. The strengths of his books far outweigh this niggling detail so I put up with it. In my own writing I’m trying to curb my habit of using “So…” which aliens, robots, futuristic humans, and present day humans in my stories all seem to use. I use “seem” too much as well. An author must constantly watch himself it seem…is apparent to me.

  5. Evolution of our language is interesting to follow. As you said the meanings can change several times in a single lifetime. Words that used to be common place are now taboo to use at all, and vice-versa.

    1. Absolutely true. Here in NZ there was a small fracas in 1970 when Germaine Greer used a word meaning male cow manure, in public. Police issued a warrant for her arrest. Now its used openly and is even the title of that Penn and Teller mythbusting show.

  6. Now I know that voluptuous does take us to the heart of the vampire. Who knew?? I admit having read Dracula many times, and somehow I did not note the frequent use of voluptuous. As you say, it has lascivious overtones, and now that I think about it, I do associate voluptuous with the early books in that genre. I loved this post!

    1. Reading that literature is an amazing journey. I read ‘Dracula’ originally as an annotated version, which was illuminating. It’s intriguing how far the movies have taken us from the original book – much of it, I fear, thanks to Universal and Bela Lugosi, who added the ridiculous magicians’ stage cloak to the costume. I recall quite enjoying that 1991 Gary Oldman re-make, which seemed to be quite a bit closer to the original (albeit portraying Dracula as a kind of 1970s prog-rock god with velvet top hat and steampunk shades…) These days the original novel’s a wonderful insight into how English language – and society – changes.

  7. When you look at the definitions, there is little change between the two for some men who feel the sight, and hopefully feel, of an attractive and full-figured woman is pleasure giving.

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