What’s a chimera?

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: chimera.

I’d never read anything written by British novelist Sebastian Faulks (pictured above), despite multiple urgings from my husband to give the book Birdsong a try. I tend not to like war stories, so I haven’t braved that one yet, despite the many kudos the book has earned, including 13th place in the UK’s Big Read competition.

We did, however, have a copy of Faulks’ book A Possible Life, lying around our house and I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, it wasn’t a novel. Instead, it was a collection of three short stories, bookended by two novellas.

I saw, immediately, that Faulks can write. I didn’t like all of the stories equally, but the last novella moved me immensely. Titled “You Next Time” it relates the story of a London-born music mogul reflecting back on his affair with a folk-rock singer in the 1970s.

I liked the first novella as well. Titled “A Different Man,” it tells the story of a half-French linguist at the time of the Second World War who ends up enlisting in the Army. This story also gave me my word of the week, the noun chimera. Here’s how Faulks used it:

Trembath was a bit of an ass in many ways, Geoffrey admitted to himself, but while he was still there, with his attachment to the proper way of doing things, it was possible to believe that the life he had known while growing up was not a mirage but a substantial and continuing thing; that it was the [concentration] camp that was the chimera.

A chimera is a thing that is hoped or wished for but that, in fact, is illusory or impossible to achieve. In Greek mythology, a chimera is also a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail — although that’s clearly not the meaning in this context.

The origin of the word is Medieval Latin chimaera, from the Greek khimaira, referring to the name of a mythical, many-parted creature (see image here), supposedly a personification of snow or winter. The figurative meaning of “wild fantasy” was first recorded in English in the 1580s.