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Pecksniffian

Pronounced /pɛkˈsnɪfɪən/Help with pronunciation

We are in the company of Messrs Pumpkinskull, Sweedlepipe, Bumble, Tappertit, Honeythunder, Pumblechook, and Muddlebranes, whose names all came out of the mind of Charles Dickens. His ability to create memorable and frequently sarcastic names for his characters, his villains in particular, is surely unmatched in literary history.

Pecksniffian derives from his Martin Chuzzlewit of 1844, in which Seth Pecksniff is a land surveyor and architect, though the author remarks that the only surveying of land he did was of the view of the countryside from his windows and that “of his architectural doings, nothing was clearly known, except that he had never designed or built anything.”

In truth, Mr Pecksniff, though in appearance the most upright of men who prated about high moral principles and benevolence, was an awful hypocrite, full of meanness and treachery. Dickens remarked scathingly that “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”

In common with some other Dickens’ characters, including Gradgrind, Micawber, Podsnap, Scrooge and Uriah Heep, Pecksniff has become an archetype. He was turned into an adjective, meaning unctuously hypocritical, as early as 1851 and later became a noun, Pecksniffery.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Sep. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 September 2004.