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Jul 20, 2020
This week’s theme
Words coined after fairy-tale characters

This week’s words
ugly duckling
sleeping beauty
Prince Charming

Illustration: Jessie Willcox Smith
A Child’s Book of Stories, 1911

Previous week’s theme
Misc. words
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with Anu Garg

They have been around for thousands of years. They are called fairy tales, even though most don’t have any fairies. Nor do they have anything to do with fairs. The term comes to us from French conte de fées (fairy tales). French fairy tales apparently did include fairies.

A better term might be folk tales that include talking animals with a sprinkling of magic and enchantment. We have the term “fairy-tale ending” which implies a happily-ever-after, but what we have these days is really a sanitized version of the stories. Originally, fairy tales rarely had a fairy-tale ending, a reflection of hard life in those days.

After years of telling and retelling, these stories have left a mark on the language. Many of the characters have stepped out from the pages of the books and walked into the language. This week we’ll meet five terms coined after fairy-tale characters.



adjective: Just right; a happy medium; optimal; not at either extreme.

After Goldilocks, a golden-haired girl in the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. In the story, she visits a bear house and chooses Baby Bear’s chair, bed, and porridge because they are just right. Papa Bear’s porridge is too hot, Mama Bear’s too cold, for example. Earliest documented use: 1949. The story was first published in 1837. The earliest documented use in the literal sense of the word is from 400 years earlier.

NOTES: Trespass much? What would have happened if, instead of Goldilocks, the protagonist was a boy named Dreadlocks? Share on our website or email us at words@wordsmith.org.
The word is often seen in astronomy, as the Goldilocks zone, meaning an area that’s at just the right distance from a star for a planet there to support life.

“‘That’s our Goldilocks locomotive,’ Executive Director Mark Bassett says. ‘No. 93 is too big for what we do, and it’s a gas guzzler. No. 40 is too small for what we do. No. 81 is in the middle. It should be just right.’”
Jim Wrinn; Five Ways Nevada Northern Highballs History; Trains (Milwaukee, Wisconsin); Jul 2020.

“Swirling around a red-dwarf star about 110 light-years away from Earth the distant world sits in a so-called Goldilocks zone -- not close enough to its host star to be too hot and not far enough away to be too cold -- that could allow liquid water to flow across its surface.”
Blue World; The Economist (London, UK); Sep 14, 2019.

See more usage examples of Goldilocks in Vocabulary.com’s dictionary.

The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace. -Carlos Santana, musician (b. 20 Jul 1947)

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