What does picaresque mean?

Word count: 269 words

Reading time: About 1 minute

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: picaresque.

I don’t typically look at either Time Magazine or Macleans. But there I was, sitting in a doctor’s office, searching for something to read and a Macleans story on singer and songwriter Paul Anka caught my eye.

Written by Nicholas Koehler and Mike Doherty, the April 15/13 story was essentially a feature on Anka, tied to the release of his new autobiography, My Way.  And the word that grabbed me? Picaresque. Here’s the sentence in which it appeared:

Throughout the book Anka pops up to emerge as a sort of pop-star missing link, the common denominator in 20th-century music’s grand picaresque–often in the unlikeliest places. 

What interests me is the confusion some readers are likely to have between the words picaresque and picturesque, two entirely different adjectives! Here are their meanings and etymologies.

Picaresque is a literary term referring to a first-person novel, recounting the adventures of a low-born adventurer as he moves  from place to place in order to survive. The “hero”  is usually a cynical and amoral rascal. The word is Spanish and dates back to 1810, from picaresco meaning “roguish.” Don Quixote by Cervantes is likely the best known picaresque novel.

Picturesque, on the other hand, means something that is visually charming or quaint, as if resembling or suitable for a painting. The word, from 1703, is from the French pittoresque, which, in turn, was borrowed from the Italian pittoresco, meaning “pictorial.”

Confusing these two words would be like mixing up an illusion with an allusion!

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