pi-kê-resk • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Having to do with a rascal or scalawag, usually of the lower class, whose life is a series of adventures in which he or she plays hypocritical and corrupt wealthy people for fools.
Notes: Picaresque folks usually lead picturesque lives, but don't confuse the two words. Do remember the French 4-letter spelling of the [sk] sound, -sque. The first picaresque novel was Spanish, Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (Life of Lazarillo de Tormes), published anonymously in 1554. The earliest English picaresque novel is Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, whose heroine takes advantage of the hypocrisy and gullibility of the upper class to make her way through life, victim by victim.
In Play: We do hear of people who lead picaresque lives outside novels: "Martina climbed a picaresque ladder from the shanty town where she was born to the executive suite of the corporation where she works now." More broadly, today's adjective may be used to depict an adventuresome life that pays little attention to the line between right and wrong: "Jimmy Chonga must have traveled a picaresque road between his career as a professional wrestler and his current position as a minister in the local church."
Word History: Today's word is a French adjective based on the Spanish noun pícaro, the hero of picaresque novels. It comes from picar "to peck, nibble", but once meant "attack with a barbed tongue". This verb descended from Vulgar Latin piccare, for which we have no written evidence. However, it must have existed, since we find its descendants in Romance languages, languages that derived from Latin. Another is French piquer "to prick", which English borrowed for use in such expressions as pique my curiosity. The Old French noun pique meant "irritation", a meaning it still bears in English today, as to insult someone in a fit of pique. (Join other verbiculturists today in our Alpha Agora to discuss this fascinating word and other Good Words in our series.)