By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘literary’ can have several meanings. Obviously it’s most familiar as the adjectival form of literature: i.e., it means ‘of or relating to literature’. But it can also be used to refer to somebody’s style (a literary style of writing), or to describe somebody’s personality (he’s a literary man).
Because it can be used in a number of different contexts, the word literary is sometimes best avoided in favour of some useful synonyms. So let’s take a closer look at some of the best and commonest words which mean the same as ‘literary’ in the various contexts in which that word is used.
After we’ve considered the synonyms, we’ll conclude by pondering the antonyms for ‘literary’.
If we’re talking about someone who is literary in that they like literature and books, they might also be described as BOOKISH. Someone who is bookish loves reading them, and might also be quite STUDIOUS. Although studious and literary are not exact synonyms, there’s obviously some degree of crossover.
Although bookish is a more informal word than literary, it’s of an old vintage, and is first recorded in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare used it in The Winter’s Tale in the early seventeenth century. In that play, a Shepherd remarks: ‘Though I am not bookish, yet I can reade Waiting-Gentlewoman in the ’scape.’
If someone is bookish the chances are in favour of them also being WELL-READ, a compound adjective that has also been around since the sixteenth century. It originally referred to a book rather than a person, but soon came to mean ‘well-informed’ or clued-up on a subject. So, well-read can be used as a synonym for literary to describe someone who has read a good deal of literature.
Literature and culture are pretty much inextricably linked, so another way to signal that someone is literary is to refer to them as CULTURED. Someone cultured is clued-up on culture, knows about the finer things in life (not just literature but art, ballet, theatre, music, and so on), and may well be refined in their manners.
To return to studious for a moment: there are also some handy words that emphasise the EDUCATED manner of somebody who has clearly received an extensive and in-depth education in any number of subjects. If literature is the subject you’re discussing, then both educated and ERUDITE can serve as useful synonyms.
Erudite is from the Latin rudis meaning ‘rude, untrained’ and the prefix ē which means ‘out’. In other words, someone who is erudite stands outside that circle of society containing people who are uncouth and uneducated: someone erudite is well-trained or well-taught in a subject.
SCHOLARLY, ACADEMIC, and DONNISH also belong to the world of education, especially universities. Indeed, a don is an old term for a university teacher or tutor, hence donnish. LEARNED is another such term, pronounced learn-edd when used as an adjective, as in I am a learned man or my learned friend.
HIGHBROW is a term that derives from an old (and scientifically discredited) belief that a high forehead on a person indicates a greater than average intellect. Someone who knows their Balzac from their Proust, their Kafka from their Kundera, may have highbrow tastes in literature; although this term is often employed disparagingly rather than as a compliment.
INTELLECTUAL is a more neutral term which denotes the same thing.
Of course, intellect can belong to a variety of subjects, not just literature. So LETTERED is a more literature-specific term for the same idea: it refers to someone acquainted with or instructed in letters (i.e., literature, not just letters sent in the post); i.e., someone who is literate, educated, or learned.
Meanwhile, BELLETRISTIC is a term derived from the French for ‘fine letters’, i.e., the study of literature, belles-lettres. So someone belletristic is acquainted with the more elegant side of literary study. However, if their writing style is belletristic this may suggest it’s a little too refined: indeed, LOFTY or ELEVATED.
Both of these adjectives essentially mean that the writing is rather GRAND or HIGH-FLOWN. It is TOWERING, MAJESTIC, even STATELY because it bears the influence of the finest literature.
However, not all words which emphasise the elevated quality of a piece of literary writing are necessarily positive or laudatory, and there are other literary synonyms which can be used to criticise a writer or their work for being too high-flown.
These words include BOMBASTIC, FLOWERY, FLORID, HIGHFALUTIN, and GRANDILOQUENT.
Bombastic denotes pretentious writing that’s full of its own importance: the word derives from the French bombace, referring to cotton wall, because bombastic writing is stuffed full of pretentious verbiage.
Meanwhile, the etymology of highfalutin is altogether more mysterious, though it may be related to fluting or flight. If someone, or their writing or speech, is highfalutin it is absurdly pompous or AFFECTED.
Of course, ELOQUENT is not only more neutral than these words but positively … well, positive in its meaning. So somebody whose writing is eloquent is being praised for their style.
Although it is rather colourless next to some of the above synonyms, the adjective WRITTEN is also sometimes used synonymously with literary. And given literature’s associations with form and good style, FORMAL can also be employed here.
LITERATE, meanwhile, refers to someone who can read, but by extension can apply to somebody well-read or, indeed, literary.
There are some other book- words which, whilst rarer than the synonyms mentioned above, deserve to be better-known.
These include BOOK-BOSOMED, a term coined by the Scottish author and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) to refer to somebody who always carries a book around with them (i.e., they are always hugging a book to their chest or bosom).
And in the twentieth century, the American author and journalist H. L. Mencken coined the term BIBLIOBIBULI for people who read too much. The word is suggestive of people who imbibe or drink too much, implying that book-addition is similar to alcohol-addiction: such a person is, if you like, a BOOKAHOLIC.
A BIBLIOMANIAC or a BIBLIOMANE is someone who has a mania for buying, collecting, and reading books, BIBLIOLATRY is book-worship, and a BIBLIOGNOST is one who knows about books.
And to return us to the subject of this article, the word literary, a literary person might be described as a LITERARIAN.
Someone who doesn’t read and perhaps cannot even read books, and who therefore is not literary, can be described as ILLITERATE.
If we’re talking about a writing style, words which mean the opposite of literary (more or less) include INFORMAL, CASUAL, UNEDUCATED, and, indeed, NON-LITERARY.