Sometimes it is Greek: Quixotic

Picasso's rendering of Don Quixote

Each week, “It’s not GREek!” will discuss a new word likely to appear on the GRE.  We aim not only to give you a new word to memorize, but also to provide you with some background and etymological history to help you remember it.  At the end of the post, we will also give you a sentence with a few other new words to add to your flash cards.  By following this weekly series, you should be more prepared than ever to tackle the sentence completion, sentence equivalencies, and reading comprehension questions on test day.

This Week’s Word:  Quixotic

Quixotic has a meaning as zany as it sounds: foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals, marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.  It can also mean capricious or unpredictable.

Quixoticism, which is derived from quixotic, means over-idealism, as in an idealism that does not take consequence or absurdity into account.  It can also mean someone or something that is resentful of a previous age in history, boasting that his or her time is better, or someone who is hateful of the squalor and frivolity of medieval times.

Some quixotic things?  English singer-songwriter Martina Topley-Bird released an album in 2004 called Quixotic.  A band called Quix*o*tic rocked the streets of Washington, D.C. from 1997 to 2002.  On the other coast, Los Angeles can boast of its very own DJ Quixotic who is most noted for his roles on the turntable/scratch scene.

So where did this crazy word come from? Appropriately enough, its origins are literary.  Ever read Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (Don Quixote)?  The hero of the novel, Don Quixote, is the embodiment of quixotic and the inspiration for the word as it is used today.  Don Quixote imagines a romantic, ideal world that he believes is real, acts on his idealism, and gets in all kinds of trouble, including starting an imaginary fight with windmills.  The word was soon picked up by the poet John Cleveland who wrote “The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne Heads” in his 1644 book The character of a London diurnall.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Another phrase derived from Don Quixote’s misadventures? “Tilting at windmills.”  This phrase is an English idiom that means attacking imaginary enemies, just like Don Quixote when he fought windmills he imagined were giants.

Sample Sentence:

The querulous caregiver quashed her quandaries about quarantining the quixotic young man when she observed him perched on a quay engaging in a swordfight with an imaginary beast.

Miss last week’s “Sometimes it is Greek?” Check it out here.  Want more GRE vocabulary? Click here for the free TestMasters GRE vocabulary list with over 2,000 words!

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