Pecksniffian

by Limbic on August 31, 2004

From World Wide Words newsletter:

Pecksniffian means “Unctuously hypocritical”. 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 country 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 moral of men, who prated about benevolence and high moral principles, 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 as early as 1851 and later became a noun, “Pecksniffery”.

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