On the quixotic — and the Quijote
Is quixotic positive or negative, you ask. An easy enough question to ask, aye.
But to answer? To answer is something else. For it is . . . complicated.
That’s because a tale as rich as El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha cannot be potted into a single sentence, nor sentiment. It does not admit a simple yes or no answer. If you take only one of them, you break it. You must accept them both.
But the novel itself does admit an inescapable interpretation, one that this posting will at length provide before its end.
I would first take issue with the senses provided by the current online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Earlier versions were better. Although Dr Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 did not include quixotic, by just three-quarters of a century later Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary did so, providing this simple, honest definition that is as true today as it was centuries ago:
a. Like Don Quixote; romantic to extravagance.
Fast forward almost a century to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 and we find the entry expanded to the following:
a. Like Don Quixote; romantic to extravagance; absurdly chivalric; apt to be deluded. Feats of quixotic gallantry." Prescott.
A half-century following that edition came the monumental Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged of 1961, a groundbreaking ‘masterwork of scholarship’ in lexicography never before seen in North America — nor since: the current M-W holds no candle to it. In the W3 we find the entry for quixotic given as:
\(ˈ)kwik¦säd·|ik, ‑ät|, |ēk\ also quix·ot·i·cal
\ə̇kəl, |ēl\ : adj [quixote + ‑ic or ‑ical] idealistic and utterly impractical, esp : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or chivalrous action doomed to fail 〈～ as a restoration of medieval knighthood ―M.R.Cohen〉 syn see ɪᴍᴀɢɪɴᴀʀʏ
(Sorry about all that gibberish pseudo-pronunciation that nobody can understand and which makes no sense anyway; that’s what the book has.)
Beyond that entry, other related entries in Webster’s Third include quix·ote, quix·ot·i·cal·ly, quix·o·tism, quix·o·tize, and quix·o·try.
I do not know that the W3 much improves on the previous editions’ versions; though more complete, it may overreachingly water down the actual meaning of the word, not recognizing that the original sense is still extant.
Let us therefore turn to an historical dictionary instead, the one that has no peer. The OED defines quixotic as:
/kwɪkˈsɒtɪk/, a. (sb.)
Etymology: f. Quixote sb.
1. Of persons: Resembling Don Quixote; hence, striving with lofty enthusiasm for visionary ideals.
- 1815 J. Adams Wks. (1856) X. 157, ― I considered Miranda as a vagrant, a vagabond, a Quixotic adventurer.
- 1857 Hughes Tom Brown i. i, ― This family training··makes them eminently quixotic.
- 1896 Spectator 7 Mar. 336 ― Any one can exceed, but few can be really Quixotic.
2. Of actions, undertakings, etc.: Characteristic of, appropriate to, Don Quixote.
- 1851 Gallenga Italy 131 ― A daring that would seem almost quixotic.
- 1874 Green Short Hist. x. 719 ― A quixotic mission to the Indians of Georgia.
- 1876 Emerson Ess. Ser. ii. vii. 175 ― All public ends look vague and quixotic beside private ones.
b. pl. as sb. Quixotic sentiments.
- 1896 Spectator 7 Mar. 337 ― If··our Quixotics seem foolish or extravagant.
Hence quiˈxotical a.; quiˈxotically adv.; quiˈxoticism = quixotism.
- 1850 Fraser’s Mag. XLII. 482 ― No Quixotical redresser of wrong.
- 1862 Sat. Rev. XIII. 660/2 ― A mathematician who··Quixotically endeavoured to cure him.
- 1882 Athenæum 23 Sept. 410/1 ― The symbol of his noble quixoticism.
And, since quixotic is necessarily defined in terms of Quixote, the OED defines Quixote as:
Also 7 -ot, 8 -iot, 9 -otte.
Etymology: The name of the hero of Cervantes’ romance (see Don sb.1 c), = Sp. quixote, now written quijote
/kiˈxote/ a cuisse.
An enthusiastic visionary person like Don Quixote, inspired by lofty and chivalrous but false or unrealizable ideals.
- 1648 Merc. Prag. No. 1. A ij, ― The Romance’s and Gazetta’s of the famous Victories and Exploits of the godly Quixots.
- A. 1658 Cleveland Gen. Poems, etc. (1677) 112 ― Thus the Quixots of this Age fight with the Windmils of their own heads.
- 1786–7 Bonnycastle Astron. i. 17 ― There are Quixotes and pedants in every profession.
- 1811 Jefferson Writ. (1830) IV. 164 ― What these Quixottes are clamoring for.
- 1896 Spectator 7 Mar. 337/1 ― Where the more sober thinker fails, the Quixote is often of service.
- 1800 Mrs. Hervey Mourtray Fam. IV. 41 ― Quixote‐like, going to fight when he had no occasion.
b. attrib. passing into adj. = quixotic.
- 1708 Ozell tr. Boileau’s Lutrin iv. (1730) 209 ― A weak Defence for Quixiot kings.
- 1757 Lady M. W. Montagu Let. to C’tess Bute 7 July, ― The Quixote reputation of redressing wrongs.
- 1782 H. Walpole Lett. to M. Cole 14 Feb. (1846) VI. 160 ― My diet-drink is not all of so Quixote a disposition.
- 1810 Bentham Packing (1821) 198 ― Our Quixote Sheriff.
Hence ˈQuixote v. intr. (also with it), to act like a Quixote.
- 1702 Vanbrugh False Friend v. i, ― When you··are upon your rantipole adventures, you shall Quixot it by your self for Lopez.
- 1803 Jane Porter Thaddeus (1826) I. vi. 131, ― I will not be the first to tell him of our quixoting.
To chase the last reference, the one where it says “see Don 1 c ”, the OED provides this at that entry:
Don /dɒn/, sb. 1
Etymology: a. Sp. don :– L. domin-um [sic: that’s the accusative; should be dominus in nom. sg. or even domine in the vocative, since that’s how it is often used. ―tchrist] master, lord.
1. A Spanish title, prefixed to a man’s Christian name.
c. [. . .] Don Quixote, the hero of a Spanish romance by Cervantes, who, from his attempt to be a knight-errant as described in the books of chivalry, has become the type of any one who attempts to do an absurdly impossible thing or to carry out an impossible ideal; also attrib.; hence, Don Quixote v., Don Quixotism: see also quixotic, etc.
- 1674 [Z. Cawdrey] Catholicon 18 ― The furious zeal of persons Don-Quixotted in Religion.
- 1734 Fielding Don Quixote in England Introd., ― The Audience, I believe, are all acquainted with the Character of Don Quixote and Sancho. I have brought them over into England, and introduced them at an Inn in the Country.
- 1870 D. G. Rossetti Let. 15 Mar. (1965) II. 817 ― He is a complete Don Quixote in every way.
- 1900 A. Conan Doyle Gt. Boer War x. 167 ― His long thin figure, his gaunt Don-Quixote face.
- 1902 Pall Mall Gaz. 4 Jan. 6/3 ― This Don Quixote of a society has made an assault upon the most solid of windmills.
So there you have it.
It means resembling the titular Don himself, and all that that entails. It means all those things, but most importantly it means resembling “an enthusiastic visionary person like Don Quixote, inspired by lofty and chivalrous but false or unrealizable ideals.”
That’s a lot of denotation — far more than a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down is ever going to be enough to characterize.
If you are just soliciting opinion, then this is not a good format for doing that. It would just devolve into a list question full of anecdotal connotations, which could not be substantiated, ranked, nor selected as a single correct answer.
No doubt thanks to the award-winning 1965 musical, Man of La Mancha and its unforgettable songs, the noun use of that word, Quixote, is now most apt to be given in the Spanish pronunciation in today’s America, so
/kiˈxote/ as the OED provides, albeit in monoglots with the alien
/x/ converted to a native
/h/. The Anglicized pronunciation of Quixote would therefore be
[kʰiˈhoʊɾɪ], and that is how it is most often heard in America today. (The runner-up is Donkey Hody. :)
See also Why is quixotic pronounced as it is?. There seems to be some degree of variation in how present-day English-language speakers pronounce quixotic itself. This is probably due to the comparative rarity of the word making it one most speakers have never heard said aloud, only read. There may also be some interference, especially in North America, stemming from an active or passive knowledge of the Spanish pronunciation of the Don’s name as described in the previous paragraph.
Although the OED does not (yet?) attest quixotesque, a word calqued on the Spanish quijotesco described below, this form can be found here and there on the internet, where it used as a synonym for quixotic, especially one with Noah Webster’s original sense of being like Cervantes’ titular hero.
Being a Spanish-speaker myself, I’ve always been a trifle uncomfortable with the English spelling-pronunciation of quixotic, since I know that it is based on a misunderstanding. The x in Quixote was never a
/ks/ even when the novel was first penned; it meant
/ʃ/ at that time.
When during the 15th and 16th centuries, all the Spanish sibilants shifted dramatically (as explained in English and Spanish), that x became phonemic
/x/ (which in Spain is realized as phonetic
[χ] before a back vowel, and in Mexico phonetic
[h] anywhere). Consequently, the Don found himself respelled to modern Quijote, using the modern j to represent
[x]. (The Mexicans resisted this orthographic realignment, which is why they insist on spelling their country México rather than Méjico, the latter being the way it is spelled in modern-day Spain to thereby match the actual pronunciation of the word.)
So if I felt particularly daring, or if I were writing to a Spanish-speaking audience who already knew the Spanish word quijotesco, or simply because I were stricken with a donnish fit of quijotería :), then I just possibly might write quijotesque in English, giving it an English pronunciation of
But then even fewer people would know what I was talking about than if I wrote quixotic.
What’s a cuisse?
The OED finishes its etymology of Quixote saying that in Spanish it is “now written quijote a cuisse”. But what’s a cuisse — and how does it have anything to do with the Don?
Some of you might know cuisse as ‘thigh’ in French, but that is not what it means here. Rather, it is that particular piece of armor which protects the thigh. The OED gives this entry for the term:
Forms: pl. 4 quysseaux, ‑ewes, 5 cusseis, cussues, qwysshewes, 5–7 cushies, 7 cushes, 6–9 cuisses, 8–9 cuishes; sing. 5 cusshewe, cusché, 7 cush, 9 cuish.
Etymology: In 14th c. quyssewes, cuissues, a. OFr. cuisseaux, cuisiaux, pl. of cuissel = Ital. cosciale, L. coxāle, f. L. coxa hip, Ital. coscia, Fr. cuisse thigh. In Eng. the ‑ewes, ‑ues of the plural being reduced to ‑ies, and at length to ‑es, the latter has been confounded with the plural ending in fish-es, etc., and a singular cuish, cuisse formed. The etymological sing. would be quissel, or quissew.
pl. Armour for protecting the front part of the thighs; in sing. a thigh-piece.
The reason this is interesting is that the modern Spanish word quijote
/kiˈxote/, which in Old (and older) Spanish was quixote
/kiˈʃote/, really does mean a thigh-piece of armor. If you trace it back far enough, the English and the Spanish come from the same place. Castilian — by which I mean Spanish — borrowed the word from Catalan, where it was cuixot, pronounced
/kʷɨˈʃɔt/. This comes from the Latin coxa meaning hip. So Spanish quijote and English cuisse came from the same place, albeit via different routing (ours came via Norman French).
Why the middle-aged country gentleman from dusty La Mancha should have chosen, upon taking up the mantle of a knight-errant, to rename himself for the piece of armor that defends the vulnerable thigh from harm is itself a fascinating point of contemplation, but not especially germane to the current question. It is, however, central to how he conceived of himself — which is.
It is also part of a common thread of his choosing to see the world as he would that it were, not as it was: he romantically renamed his tired old nag Rocinante, and he sweetly renamed a plain-looking farmer’s daughter Dulcinea, surely as dulcet a name as they come.
It all comes down to that ingenioso hidalgo, the Don himself
The Spanish noun quijote, taken from the Don, is per the RAE an
Hombre que antepone sus ideales a su conveniencia y obra desinteresada y comprometidamente en defensa de causas que considera justas, sin conseguirlo.
Freely translated, he’s a man who places his ideals in front of his own convenience, selflessly committing himself to the defence of those causes he considers just, without managing to succeed in this.
The Spanish adjective corresponding to English quixotic is quijotesco, and that is the word with the sense that for me quixotic carries in English: it’s about being like don Quijote, just like Noah Webster told us nearly two centuries ago.
And quixotic still means that. It’s about taking up a just cause for the sake of noble ideals without regard to personal hardship, adversity, or even practicality or likelihood of success. It’s about trying to do what’s right even when you know you can never prevail.
Is that a positive thing or a negative thing?
That’s a very personal decision, but I for one consider it in the most positive of all possible lights, howsoever doomed it may be. Nothing great was ever achieved by aiming low.
Some battles are worth fighting for, fighting for with all our heart and mind and soul and body, even all the while knowing that in the end we must ultimately fall in that battle, that we must in the end inescapably fail forever.
After all, isn’t that what life itself is?
The lyricist for the musical stunningly captured all of this when he famously wrote:
The Impossible Dream (The Quest)
To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.
To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.
This is my quest, to follow that star:
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far.
To be willing to give when there’s no more to give,
To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live.
And I know if I’ll only be true
to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
when I’m laid to my rest.
And the world will be better for this:
That one man scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.
That song, you will note, ends on a very high note, musically reminding us of ad astra per aspera. Now you tell me: does that sound positive or negative?
There is only one possible answer that allows life to continue, and that must surely be that it must be positive. Otherwise we should all just give up right now and die, since we know how our story ends. And we mustn’t do that.
Life itself is quixotic: we cannot prevail in the end. In the end, all hopes must fail, and fall we surely shall.
But that does not mean we should not try!
Indeed, it is knowing that we must ultimately fail that gives us fools the most reason to rush in where angels fear to tred: to try all the harder, to run all the farther, to aim all the higher — that the world might be better for this.