Word of the Week! Cyclopean

Welcome to a new feature at the Writing Center’s site. I (or a guest) will provide a new word regularly with some etymology as well as clarity about how to use it. When the word came not from my head but from our students, faculty, or staff, they will be recognized.

Our word of the week is “Cyclopean.” Thanks to student Haley Lawrence for providing it last semester in my Eng. 215 class, when we read the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Here’s a typically long-winded Lovecraftian example of the adjective:

“Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.”

The usage is from the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” and here it suggests buildings not only large, but inhumanly so, to the point of discomfort. So why the image of Ray Harryhausen’s  famous cyclops from the 1958 film Seventh Voyage of Sinbad?

A search through a few dictionaries shows a first recorded use in 1641 (OED Online). In that instance, humans shook in awe before “the Cyclopean power that which [sic] is the glory of Christ.”  The Christian savior qualifies as more than human, but the idea of a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, seems lost here.  The OED also records a later usage for a telescope, certainly a one-eyed and powerful tool. That’s closer to that mythical creature who terrorized Odysseus until the wily Greek outwitted him.

The Cyclops of the epic poem was large, smart, and crafty in many ways. He was, most importantly, a rather domestic monster, keeping a herd of sheep and living in a large cave. I suppose the myth of the race of Cyclops led to all sorts of explanations for natural or ancient stonework as well as metaphors for contemporary architecture.

In Lovecraft’s prose, the term applies to large masonry of a sort that no human of his age might erect: blocks of Egyptian pyramids, The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and so forth.  Do not simply substitute “cyclopean” for “huge”: something must be huge to the point of inspiring awe. I’d call The Empire State Building or Hoover Dam Cyclopean; a McMansion or highway bridge, not so much. Imagine, 2,000 years hence, an archeologist writing “old New York staggers the explorer with the Cyclopean ruins of Midtown.”

My first print dictionary, a nearly antique Webster’s New Collegiate, adds another twist beyond one-eyed or large:  encyclopedia. The older term “cyclopedia” is a synonym for our familiar printed or online repository of information. It too is vast; think of what we mean when we say that someone has “encyclopedic knowledge” of a subject. One rarely sees printed encyclopedias any more, but if you spot one, consider how much shelf-space it takes and think of those one-eyed, inhuman giants of mythology.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment here.