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Vocabulary in The Importance of Being Earnest

Vocabulary Examples in The Importance of Being Earnest:

Act I

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"apoplexy..."   (Act I)

A loss of various senses and motor functions, as well as the ability to speak, typically caused by a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke or by any illness that causes an effusion of blood in the brain. It isn't, contrary to what Algernon says, a hereditary malady, though in the late 19th Century it may have appeared to be.

"as right as a trivet..."   (Act I)

A "trivet" meaning a stand or support, typically for a pot, plate, or any other vessel placed over a fire. Originally, the trivet was understood to have three legs, like a tripod, but doesn't necessarily have all three of them now, and is instead often attached to a grate by a way of one or more hooks. For Gwendolen to be as "right" as a trivet means to be as sturdy and dependable, meaning, to Jack's liking.

"found..."   (Act I)

Foundlings, as people like Jack were called, were orphans who were for one reason or another left by their parents to be "found" by other people and raised as their own. Typically, these foundlings were left on church doorsteps to be raised in overcrowded orphanages, but in some cases were "found" by people, such as Mr. Cardew, who were able to give them some wealth and status.

"they count as Tories..."   (Act I)

The term "Tory" can be applied to anyone who supported the British Conservative party during the 18th and 19th Centuries. These Tories were opposed to parliamentary reform, were staunch supporters of colonialism and the Crown, and were typically members of the upper or middle class. Lady Bracknell equates Jack with Tories to suggest that his political leanings are perfectly acceptable, if not exactly preferred.

"Liberal Unionist..."   (Act I)

A British political party that separated itself from the Liberals in 1886 and joined with the Conservatives. Among the Liberal Unionists were many members of the old aristocracy, who aligned themselves with the Conservatives to maintain control over their lands and estates. A Liberal Unionist was not, in general, someone who had no polities, as Jack claims, so this may be a joke that Wilde is making at the party's expense.

"the duties expected of one during one's life-time..."   (Act I)

Here, "duties" refers both to the duties or responsibilities one has to maintain a property (gardening, remodeling, etc.) and to the taxes or "duties" one pays on the property during life and after death (in the form of inheritance taxes). Together, these various duties make land feel like a burden rather than a resource and remove any pleasure one might've taken from being a landowner. Of course, only someone with land could espouse such a belief.

"Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner..."   (Act I)

Wagnerian referring to Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883), a famed German composer well-known for his elaborate, dramatic orchestrations. By comparing the ringing of the bell to Wagner's operas, Wilde suggests that both Algernon's relatives and creditors ring the bell with overly dramatic intensity, which heralds their arrival in the same way that Wagner's leitmotifs (or recurring musical phrases) attach to specific characters and recur periodically throughout his works.

"Bunburyist..."   (Act I)

Someone who lies or makes up excuses in order to get out of doing something boring or talking to people that they don't like. This term derives from the surname of the fictional character "Bunbury," whom Algernon invents for this express purpose. Wilde purportedly thought of the term while on the train between Banbury and Sunbury, where he met a boy with whom he later arranged a sexual encounter. This term became shorthand amongst his circle of friends for hiding one's sexual orientation and leading a double life.

"sentiment is my forte..."   (Act I)

This is a pun on the word "forte," as in "pianoforte," the proper name for the piano. Here, Wilde uses the word "forte" both to make a musical pun and suggest that emotional piano playing is Algernon's "forte," or strength.

"a lorgnette..."   (Act II)

A lorgnette is a pair of eyeglasses with a handle, often referred to as "opera glasses" because of their use by the audience of many stage productions. Gwendolen uses her lorgnette to get an unusually close look at Cecily, and assumes, based on what she sees, that Cecily isn't staying long. This may prove Algernon right in believing that women have to hate each other for a while before being friends. Or it may be Wilde's way of saying that none of us look good under a microscope (as the lorgnette in this situation is).

"The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity..."   (Act II)

"Equanimity" meaning even-keeled, mildly tempered, unperturbed. If her old friends (or relatives) were to excuse themselves or be absent for an extended period of time, Cecily wouldn't mind at all. This blasé attitude with regards to her personal relationships likens her in many ways to Algernon, who seems only to care about his own amusement and desires, and who falls in love with her in part because of their similar temperaments.

"But they don't seem to know what thrift is..."   (Act II)

"Thrift" means prosperity, success, and good fortune or luck. In this context, "thrift" means that the lower classes prosper or thrive, not by having more children but by having fewer. This subverts the Biblical precept to "go forth and prosper" (or have many children) by claiming that the poor would be more successful (or have more money) if they had fewer children to support. That Miss Prism says this with disdain shows how classist and prejudiced she is.

"Quixotic..."   (Act II)

Characteristic of Don Quixote, the main character of the novel of the same name by Miguel de Cervantes. As an adjective, it means to be naive, unrealistic, capricious, and whimsical. Often, it means to be in some way ridiculous or strange, as when Algernon asks Cecily if she would mind him "reforming" himself that afternoon (where "reform" is used to suggest a sex act or some form of romance that could make "Ernest" set aside his wicked ways).

"the Fall of the Rupee you may omit..."   (Act II)

The Rupee being the primary currency on the Indian subcontinent. It was first minted in the mid 15th Century, though India had been using coins like it since as early as the 6th Century BCE. Under British rule, the rupee began to depreciate, in large part because it was minted in silver in a world where gold was the standard. Today, the rupee is still in use and is again depreciating, though for different reasons.

"That is what Fiction means..."   (Act II)

In the context of this conversation, Miss Prism simply says that good novels end happily and bad novels end unhappily, without specifying whether the endings determine the quality of the book or the quality determines the ending. More generally, however, Wilde is using this line to make a broad statement about Fiction in general, where it's a "fiction" or a falsehood that the good (people) meet with happy endings and the bad don't. As Wilde knows, reality is far removed from what we find in story books.

"signs of triviality..."   (Act III)

"Triviality" in this context means a lack of significance or importance, not a trivial detail or piece of information. This lack of "significance" is really a lack of propriety or gravity in one's bearing, which both Jack and Algernon shrug off in order to express their happiness about this unexpected plot twist. It's unclear, from this sentence, whether Lady Bracknell is referring to Jack or to Algernon now that Jack has been revealed to also be her nephew. Very likely, she's referring to both.

"an Oxonian..."   (Act III)

An alum of Oxford University, the most prestigious university in all of England. Algernon had mentioned on several occasions that he's too well educated to enjoy polite society, but has never specified where or what he studied. That he's an Oxford man explains both his great wit and his sense of superiority, which permeates all his interactions with the other characters in the play.

"his morbidity..."   (Act III)

In general, the word "morbidity" refers to the state of being diseased, injured, or incapacitated for reasons of health. Here, Lady Bracknell uses it to mean that Mr. Bunbury was morbid in the sense of being a brooding, morbid person obsessed with change. Recall that in Act I Lady Bracknell referred to the modern sympathy for invalids or sick people as morbid, too. This suggests that anyone who doesn't think as she does or suffers for their cause (physically or otherwise) is, as she says, a morbid person who deserves what they get.

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