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Literary Terms and Definitions: N

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated September 1, 2017.


This list is meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

N-PLURAL: The plural form of a few modern English weak nouns derives from the n-stem declension or n-plural of Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Examples include the masculine Old English oxa (which gives us the modern singular ox and the plural oxen), and the feminine word tunge (which gives us the modern word tongue). In the case of tongue, however, the plural form tungen has been superseded by the pattern of a-stem words.

N-STEM: A declension of Old English nouns. This stem was common in Old English, though its declension pattern was still less common than the a-stems. It is marked by an /n/ in many forms.

NAMING SWORDS: Many medieval legends emphasize the antiquity of swords and their unique powers. While modern readers often think of "newness" as a positive trait, associating it with technological progress and improvements, medieval readers tended to associate antiquity with reliability, feeling that a sword that survived many battles without shattering was tested and true, while a newly forged sword would be untrustworthy--more liable to break the first time it strikes shield or armor.

In order to show a blade's worth, medieval poets (and real historical owners) would recount the history of a sword--who made it, how it was passed down as a family heirloom, what battles it appeared in, and so forth. We see examples of this throughout the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where Beowulf uses the sword Nailing to fight the apocalyptic dragon and the treacherous Unferth loans out the equally treacherous blade Hrunting, or where Wiglaf uses the same sword to kill the dragon that his grandfather used to kill Onela the Swede. In Carolingian history, King Charlemagne uses his sword Joyeuse, which supposedly contained a splinter of the true cross worked into its hilt, and this relic inside the weapon conveyed divine blessing upon the wielder. Charlemagne's paladin Roland used the sword Durandal. In Arthurian legends, King Arthur wields Excalibur or Excaliburn, the sword of justice, which he received from the Lady of the Lake. In Iberian tradition, El Cid used a sword called Colada, and in Viking legend, Siegfrield owns the sword Balmung, which later Hagen wields in The Niebelungleid. Particularly in myths and legends, the swords became almost characters in and of themselves, especially if they had their own magical powers. They often had a will of their own and would seek to manipulate or restrain the one using them. For example in Old Norse legends, many cursed swords thirsted to taste blood, and they would bring disaster on their wielder. The sword Tyrfing in the Hervarar Saga, for instance, could not be resheathed until it killed someone, as it was forged and cursed by the dwarves Durin and Dalin. The sword Dyrnwyn in Welsh legends would blaze with harmless fire when a worthy hero like Rhydderch Hael drew it, but would burn any man who drew the weapon for immoral purposes.

J.R.R. Tolkien imitates this medieval tradition in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, where we have the sword Sting passed down from Bilbo to Frodo as a family heirloom. In The Hobbit, the goblins recognize Beater and Biter when their enemies draw those weapons against them, fearing the reputation of the famous blades that killed so many of their kind. Eomer wilds Gúthwine (Anglo-Saxon, "Battle-friend") at Helm's Deep. The sword Anduril, which Aragorn uses as both weapon and battle-cry, was re-forged from the shards of Narsil, the broken blade that in ancient times cut the Ring of Power from Sauron's hand, and so forth. The idea of cursed weapons controlling their owners in the medieval legends may also be an influence in the idea of the One Ring of Power and the rings Sauron gave to men, dwarves, and elves, which ultimately subverts them to Sauron's will, if worn long enough.

NAM-SHUB: (1) An incantation, chant, poem, or speech thought to have magical power in Sumerian texts. The most famous example is the nam-shub of Enki, in which Enki creates a nam-shub that causes others to lose the ability to speak, and which may be a source for the later Hebrew legend of the Tower of Babel. In the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson uses the nam-shub as a dangerous meme (i.e., an idea or pattern of thought that "replicates" by being passed along from one thinker to another). He re-interprets the Sumerian myth of Enki by imagining that the Chomskyian deep structure of the brain can be reprogrammed with different capacities for language, i.e., that humans once shared a common and innate agglutinative language, but lacked individual consciousness. A priest or scribe named Enki creates a nam-shub that re-writes the linguistic wiring of those who read it in cuneiform (or hear it spoken aloud), causing them to lose the ability to understand language. This fictional nam-shub creates in the victim the capacity for individual, conscious language, but also destroys the individual's access to universal language.

NARADNIKI (Russian, "populists"): Adherents of a radical political movement between the 1870's and late 1890's in Russia who felt Russia was an essentially agricultural country incapable of ever being highly industrialized, and who called for propaganda, literature, and education as necessary elements to help existing peasant villages--already somewhat communal--to be converted into socialist communes (Harkins 307). Matters came to a head early, and mass arrests and exiles took place in 1874 as Czarist forces cracked down on the naradniki, as described in Turgenev's 1877 novel, Virgin Soil (308). Several important Russian writers were naradniki, including Uspenski, Szsodimski, and Zlatovratsi (308).

NARADNOST (Russian, "national character"): In Russian literary criticism and propaganda, the quality literature has when it reflects indigenous national style and when it expresses typical national thought and character. Under the movement of socialist realism, editors and propagandists expected published literature to adhere to naradnost. Stalin dictated that proletarian art should be national in form and socialist in content, and under Stalin's regime, many Russian critics emphasized how folk literature and popular literature contributed to "higher" literature.

NARRATION, NARRATIVE: Narration is the act of telling a sequence of events, often in chronological order. Alternatively, the term refers to any story, whether in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do. A narrative is likewise the story or account itself. Some narrations are reportorial and historical, such as biographies, autobiographies, news stories, and historical accounts. In narrative fiction common to literature, the narrative is usually creative and imaginative rather than strictly factual, as evidenced in fairy tales, legends, novels, novelettes, short stories, and so on. However, the fact that a fictional narrative is an imaginary construct does not necessarily mean it isn't concerned with imparting some sort of truth to the reader, as evidenced in exempla, fables, anecdotes, and other sorts of narrative. The narrative can begin ab ovo (from the start and work its way to the conclusion), or it can begin in medias res (in the middle of the action, then recount earlier events by the character's dialogue, memories, or flashbacks). See exemplum and fable.

NARRATOR: The "voice" that speaks or tells a story. Some stories are written in a first-person point of view, in which the narrator's voice is that of the point-of-view character. For instance, in The Adventures of Huck Finn, the narrator's voice is the voice of the main character, Huck Finn. It is clear that the historical author, Mark Twain, is creating a fictional voice to be the narrator and tell the story--complete with incorrect grammar, colloquialisms, and youthful perspective. In other stories, such as those told in the third-person point of view, scholars use the term narrator to describe the authorial voice set forth, the voice "telling the story to us." For instance, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist presents a narrative in which the storyteller stands outside the action described. He is not a character who interacts with other characters in terms of plot. However, this fictionalized storyteller occasionally intrudes upon the story to offer commentary to the reader, make suggestions, or render a judgment about what takes place in the tale. It is tempting to equate the words and sentiments of such a narrator with the opinions of the historical author himself. However, it is often more useful to separate this authorial voice from the voice of the historical author. For further discussion, see authorial voice, unreliable narrator, and point of view.

NARRATOR, UNRELIABLE: An unreliable narrator is a storyteller who "misses the point" of the events or things he describes in a story, who plainly misinterprets the motives or actions of characters, or who fails to see the connections between events in the story. The author herself, of course, must plainly understand the connections, because she presents the material to the readers in such a way that readers can see what the narrator overlooks. This device is sometimes used for purposes of irony or humor. See discussion under authorial voice.

NARROW TRANSCRIPTION: In linguistics, phonetic transcription that shows minute details, i.e., highly accurate transcription. The opposite term, broad transcription, implies quickly made or comparative transcriptions designed primarily to illustrate general pronunciation. Most dictionaries use some form of broad transcription.

NASAL: In linguistics, any sound that involves movement of air through the nose.

NATIVE LANGUAGE: The first language or the preferred language of any particular speaker.

NATURAL GENDER: The assignment of nouns to grammatical categories based on the gender or lack of gender in the signified object or creature. This term contrasts with grammatical gender, in which the designations are more or less arbitrary and do not correspond closely with any gender in the signified object or creature.

NATURAL MAGIC: In Renaissance and medieval theology, some thinkers made a distinction between evil magics that involved ceremonial rites to manipulate foul spirits (such as the Witch of Endor's necromancy or diabolism and demonology), and natural magic, which relied on innate principles or qualities of plants, stones, words, and so forth by dealing with natural forces directly (e.g., alchemy, herbalism, astrological divination, numerology, etc.). In general, medieval and renaissance thinkers found ceremonial magic suspect, but they found natural magic neutral (or at least not inherently evil). In literature, contrasting examples include Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, who traffics with demons and is ultimately seduced by them, and the character of Merlin in the French Prose Merlin, who in spite of being half-demonic in origin, relies on non-demonic magic to work his spells. Prospero in The Tempestmight be considered a natural magician, as he employs spirits of the elements (air, earth, fire, water) rather than demons. In the fantasy literature of C.S. Lewis, Lewis plays loosely with a similar distinction, as one of the children use a magic spell that makes invisible things visible, and Aslan appears. Aslan asks her if she didn't think he would obey his own rules, suggesting that her use of the magic charm was a part of natural magic, and the divine consents to obey these natural laws by choice rather than arbitrarily violating them. On the other hand, Lewis also makes a distinction between "deep magic" (which appears to correspond to natural magic) and "deeper magic" (which appears to be divine law that exists in Augustinian time before creation).

NATURALISM: A literary movement seeking to depict life as accurately as possible, without artificial distortions of emotion, idealism, and literary convention. The school of thought is a product of post-Darwinian biology in the nineteenth century. It asserts that human beings exist entirely in the order of nature. Human beings do not have souls or any mode of participating in a religious or spiritual world beyond the biological realm of nature, and any such attempts to engage in a religious or spiritual world are acts of self-delusion and wish-fulfillment. Humanity is thus a higher order animal whose character and behavior are, as M. H. Abrams summarizes, entirely determined by two kinds of forces, hereditary and environment. The individual's compulsive instincts toward sexuality, hunger, and accumulation of goods are inherited via genetic compulsion and the social and economic forces surrounding his or her upbringing.

Naturalistic writers--including Zola, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser--try to present their subjects with scientific objectivity. They often choose characters based on strong animal drives who are "victims both of glandular secretions within and of sociological pressures without" (Abrams 175). Typically, naturalist writers avoid explicit emotional commentary in favor of medical frankness about bodily functions and biological activities that would be almost unmentionable during earlier literary movements like transcendentalism, Romanticism, and mainstream Victorian literature. The end of the naturalistic novel is usually unpleasant or unhappy, perhaps even "tragic," though not in the cathartic sense Aristotle, Sophocles, or Elizabethan writers would have understood by the term tragedy. Naturalists emphasize the smallness of humanity in the universe; they remind readers of the immensity, power, and cruelty of the natural world, which does not care whether humanity lives or dies. Examples of this include Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," which pits a crew of shipwrecked survivors in a raft against starvation, dehydration, and sharks in the middle of the ocean, and Jack London's "To Build a Fire," which reveals the inability of a Californian transplant to survive outside of his "natural" environment as he freezes to death in the Alaskan wilderness.

Naturalism is a precursor to realism that partially overlaps with it. Realism, this subsequent literary movement, also emphasizes depicting life as accurately as possible without distortion.

NEAR RHYME: Another term for inexact rhyme or slant rhyme.

NEBULA AWARD: An annual award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Association (SFFWA) for the best science fiction or fantasy work published during the previous two years. The categories include novel, novella, novelette, short story, and script. Notable winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Connie Willis, Theodore Sturgeon, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Ursula LeGuin. As of 2007, the author to win the most Nebula Awards was Joe Haldeman (four total), including one for his noteworthy allegory of Vietnam veterans' disillusionment, The Forever War. Typically, the Nebula carries no cash award, but editors and scholars consider it more prestigious than the similar Hugo Award.

NEOCLASSIC: An adjective referring to the Enlightenment. See Enlightenment for further discussion, or click here for a PDF handout that places the Neoclassic period in chronological order with other intellectual movements.

NEOCLASSICISM: The movement toward classical architecture, literature, drama, and design that took place during the Restoration and Enlightenment. See Enlightenment for further discussion about its influence in literature.

NEOCLASSIC COUPLET: See discussion under heroic couplet.

NEO-LATIN: Latin forms or words (especially scientific ones) invented after the medieval period, as opposed to classical or medieval Latin as a naturally occurring language.

NEOLOGISM: A made-up word that is not a part of normal, everyday vocabulary. Often Shakespeare invented new words in his place for artistic reasons. For instance, "I hold her as a thing enskied." The word enskied implies that the girl should be placed in the heavens. Other Shakespearean examples include climature (a mix between climate and temperature) and abyssm (a blend between abyss and chasm), and compounded verbs like outface or un-king. Contrast with kenning. Occasionally, the neologism is so useful it becomes a part of common usage, such as the word new-fangled that Chaucer invented in the 1300s. A neologism may be considered either a rhetorical scheme or a rhetorical trope, depending upon whose scholarly definition the reader trusts. See compounding, infixation, epenthesis, proparalepsis, and prosthesis.

NEPHILIM (probably derived from Hebrew napal, "to fall"): In ancient Hebrew tradition, the Nephilim (singular Naphil) were a race of giants referred to in Genesis 6:4 ("Now giants were upon the earth in those days") and in Numbers 13:33 ("We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.") In Genesis, they are called the children of the sons of God and human women, and they are referred to as "heroes of old" and "men of renown." The text of Numbers describes them as a race of giants that once inhabited Canaan, so these Nephilim were thought to live at the time of Moses, which contrasts with the Genesis text in which the deluge exterminates the entire race of Nephilim. Biblical scholars think that the clash between the two texts is the result of a dual oral tradition--though at least one Hebrew legend describes a Naphil surviving the Biblical deluge by virtue of being so tall his head remained above the water. The Nephilim seem to be related to the Rephaim (Numbers 13:33 and Deuteronomy 2:11). In later times, medieval tradition often much more closely linked the "sons of God" appearing in Genesis and Job and the race of Anak mentioned in Numbers. Cf. Rephaim.

NEW COMEDY: The Greek comedy the developed circa 300 BCE, stressing romantic entanglements, wit, and unexpected twists of plot.

NEW CRITICISM: TBA

NEW ENGLAND SHORT O: In linguistics, this term refers to "the lax vowel used by some New Englanders in road and home corresponding to tense [o] in standard English" (Algeo 324).

NIGER-KORDEFANIAN: A group of languages spoken in the southern part of Africa. This family of languages apparantly has no relation to those in the Indo-European family.

NIHILISM, RUSSIAN (from Lat. nihil, "nothing"): A radical Russian movement led by Chernyshevski and Pisarev in the 1860s characterized by an embrace of materialistic positivism, utilitarian attitudes toward artistic expression, social norms, and cultural institutions, equal rights for both genders, crudity in dress and manners, and free love. The movement rejected social norms of marriage, dress, and behavior.

NILO-SAHARAN: A group of languages spoken in the central sections of Africa. This family of languages apparantly has no relation to those in the Indo-European family.

NOBLE SAVAGE: Typically, the depiction of Amerindians, indigenous African tribesmen, and Australian bushmen results in two sharply opposing stereotypes as follows: (1) When "civilized" races dwell in close proximity to these "savages," they may feel threatened--sometimes with good reason--if the tribe is cannibalistic, warlike, or competes for local resources. In such situations, literature almost always depicts the race as inferior to the civilized race and dangerously superstitious, violent, lazy, or irrational. An example would be the depiction of Indians in Hawthorne's stories--satanic skulkers on the outskirts of good Puritan homes. (2) If the writer is only passing through an area rather than competing for resources, or if the writer lives some safe distance away, the second and opposing tendency is for him or her to romanticize the alien culture, accenting its positives and projecting his or her cultural desires on the other. This second stereotype, a literary motif, depicts exotic, primitive, or uncivilized races and characters as being innately good, dignified, and noble, living harmoniously with nature. They are thought to be uncorrupted by the morally weakening and physically debilitating effects of decadent society. The motif goes back as far as the Christian tales of Adam and Eve--the idea that innocent living in lush wilderness is equivalent to existing in a state of Edenic goodness. Montaigne develops the idea in his essay Of Cannibals, as does Aphra Behn in Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave (c. 1688). However, it is in the time of the Enlightenment that the Noble Savage truly becomes a center of attention. Rousseau writes in Emile (1762), "Everything is well when it comes fresh from the hands of God," but he adds, "everything degenerates in the hands of Man." The idea was also popular in Chateaubriand's work, in Dryden's Conquest of Granada, and especially in the writings of the Romantic poets. We see early hints of it in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man (Epistle I, lines 99-112), but Pope remains contemptuous of the native's "untutored mind," even as he admires tha native's state of contentment with nature.

NOM DE GUERRE (French, "name of war"): Another term for a nom de plume or a pen name. See nom de plume or pen name.

NOM DE PLUME (French, "name of the pen"): Another term for a pen name. The word indicates a fictitious name that a writer employs to conceal his or her identity. For example, Samuel Clemens used the nom de plume "Mark Twain." William Sydney Porter wrote his short stories under the nom de plume of "O. Henry." Mary Ann Cross used the name "George Eliot" to hide that she was a female writer, just as science-fiction writer Alice Bradley Sheldon used the nom de plume "James Tiptree, Junior." Francois-Marie Arouet used "Voltaire." Tolstoy used "Kozma Prutkov." Ben Franklin used a variety of literary aliases, and so on. One caveat: although the phrase "nom de plume" is French, the French do not use this particular phrase to describe a literary pseudonym. What we call a nom de plume, the French would call a nom de guerre.

NOMINATIVE: See case.

NON-DISTINCTIVE: In linguistics, any two sounds (often quite similar) that are not capable of signaling a difference in meaning. For instance, in Chinese, the letter t can be aspirated or unaspirated. This slight difference in sound can create two entirely different words. The Greeks also had the same sound distinction, and represented this by using both the letter theta and tau. However, in Roman Latin and modern English, the difference in aspiration is ignored, and both sounds are represented by a single letter. Since the two sounds are non-distinctive, creating two different letters for each one is unnecessary in Latin and English.

NON-FINITE FORM: In grammar, this category of verbs includes the infinitive and participle forms. Basically, a non-finite form is any form of a verb that doesn't indicate person, number, or tense.

NON-RHOTIC: In linguistics, any dialect lacking an /r/. Some dialects of English are non-rhotic. Others only pronounced the /r/ before a vowel sound.

NONSENSE WORD: In songs or poetry, sections or lines that include repeated nonreferential syllables as pseudo-words in a refrain or "filler" between other verses. For instance, many 1950s songs in America woud include phrases like shooby-do-ah or doo-wop doo-wop. Renaissance songs and poetry might include phrases like hey nonny-nonny. Christmas carols might include fa la la la, and musical notes might be linked to do re mi so fa la ti, and so forth. The words don't mean anything in particular, but in some cases, the artist may have originally included them for the aesthetics of the sound, to cover up spontaneously any slips of memory in which he or she forgot particular lyrics, or they may have served as a form of self-censorship to cover indelicate allusions that would be unsuitable for some public performances. Tolkien employs similar nonsense words in various songs in The Lord of the Rings, such as those by Sam Gamgee and also (at greater length), the incantations of Tom Bombabil, where Bombadil sings lines such as "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!" (Tolkien 119).

NORMAN: An inhabitant of Normandy, a region along the northern coast of France. The word Norman comes from a cognate for "northmen," for the Norman aristocracy of the region originally descended from Danish (i.e. Viking) settlers who took over the French region in the ninth and tenth centuries. Charles the Simple, the somewhat incompetent king of France, was unable to eject these invaders from the region, so in 912 CE he signed a treaty with Rollo, the leader of the Danes in Normandy. This treaty made Rollo a vassal Duke. After a few centuries, these Viking Normans lost their Norse language and "went native" by adapting the French tongue, French dress, French custom, and French law. However, on the continent, Norman French gradually became considered "bad French" in contrast with the "sophisticated" Parisian French. This factor might have been one catalyst in how the Anglo-Normans gradually abandoned French after they conquered the British isles. In terms of English's linguistic development, Norman French profoundly influenced our language after the Norman Invasion of 1066.

NORMAN CONQUEST: Loosely, another term for the Norman Invasion, though technically some historians prefer to differentiate between the "Norman Invasion" and the "Norman Conquest" by limiting the scope of the invasion to the initial year 1066 when the Normans landed in England and using the term "Norman Conquest" to refer to the twenty-one year period over that in which Duke William expanded and solidified his control over all England. In this class, we will use the two terms synonymously. See Norman Invasion, below.

NORMAN INVASION: Not to be confused with D-Day during World War II, medieval historians use this title for a much earlier invasion in 1066. Duke William of Normandy's conquest of England from 1066-1087 had profound impact on English by importing Norman-French vocabulary into Anglo-Saxon, bringing about the formation of Middle English. See also Battle of Hastings and Norman.

NORMANDY: The region along the northern coast of France. See Norman for more information.

NORTHERN COURAGE: Tolkien used this term to describe what he saw as a unique type of existential bravery in the mythology of the Germanic tradition, including broadly the legends of the Old Norse and the Anglo-Saxons. Unlike many religions, in which the good are awarded with a heavenly afterlife, the evil punished in eternal suffering, and the soul and the gods persist eternally, the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon religions seem more pessimistic. In the Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum, Bede recounts the Anglo-Saxon parable of the sparrow of the mead hall, in which the light and warmth of life are followed by the endless cold and wintry darkness of death. Similarly, in The Eddas, the writer assumes that all things (even the gods) will eventually face oblivion. Although brave souls will persist for some time in Valhalla after they die, at the final battle of Ragnorok, those spirits will be called to fight one last time, good versus evil. In that battle, both the good deities and the evil deities will destroy each other and wipe out the universe in an apocalyptic showdown. What struck Tolkien and many other mythographers as particularly brave, however, was the idea that even in the face of inevitable failure and extinction, the Viking and Anglo-Saxon legends still upheld the values of courage and facing one's fate bravely. In this worldview, it was still worthwhile to fight and confront evil and overwhelming odds, even if there would be no reward, no victory, and no salvation. Neither the bribe of heaven or threat of hell should sway a hero from doing his or her duty, and for the vikings and Anglo-Saxons, facing the end bravely was more important than winning. Cf. Hemingway Code.

NORTHERN DIALECT: A dialect of American English stretching through the northernmost sections of the United States.

NORTH GERMANIC: The sub-branch of the Germanic languages that contains Swedish and Old Norse.

NORTH MIDLAND DIALECT: A dialect of American English spoke in a strip of land just south of the Northern Dialect. This should not be confused with the Midlands dialect of English spoken in Britain.

NORTHUMBRIAN: The Old English dialect spoken in the kingdom of Northumbria (i.e., north of the Umber river).

NOSTOS: The theme or motif of the homecoming--a return to one's family, community, or geographic origins after a long time away. Traditionally, this Greek designation refers specifically to Odysseus's return to Ithaca after two decades of wandering, but the motif appears in many other myths, folktales, and literary works. Steven Marion's novel Hollow Ground, for instance, deals with a return to Appalachia after the collapse of the coal-mining industry.

NOSTRATIC: A hypothetical superfamily of languages that might embrace other large family language groups--including Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, possibly Afroasiatic, and other family groups. Its existence is highly contested, however, since its origins would go back beyond the 5,000 BCE marker--long before written records existed to help corroborate that nostratic ever really existed.

NOVEL: In its broadest sense, a novel is any extended fictional prose narrative focusing on a few primary characters but often involving scores of secondary characters. The fact that it is in prose helps distinguish it from other lengthy works like epics. We might arbitrarily set the length at 50,000 words or more as a dividing point with the novella and the short story. The English novel is primarily thought of as a product of the eighteenth-century, though many earlier narratives in classical Greek such as Heliodorus's Aethiopica and Daphnis and Chloë (attributed to Longus) easily fulfill the normal requirements of the genre, as the scholar Edmund Gosse has pointed out. Likewise, the Japanese Tale of the Genji and collected writings of Murasaki Shikibu from 1004 CE would clearly qualify as well by our definition--though most Western scholars treat these works as separate from the novel genre because historically they do not play a direct part or direct influence in the evolution of the popular English novel genre today.

NOVELLA: An extended fictional prose narrative that is longer than a short story, but not quite as long as a novel. We might arbitrarily assign an approximate length of 20,000-50,000 words. Early prototypes include the Decameron of Boccaccio, the Cento Novelle Antiche, and the Heptameron of Marguerite of Valois. English examples include Henry James's Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Note that some scholars in previous generations distinguished between what they called the novella (short stories in Italian, French, and German that served as later influences on English prose) and the novelette (English extended prose narratives longer than a short story but not quite as long as a novel.) Today, most American critics use the two terms interchangeably.

NOVEL OF MANNERS: A novel that describes in detail the customs, behaviors, habits, and expectations of a certain social group at a specific time and place. Usually these conventions shape the behavior of the main characters, and sometimes even stifle or repress them. Often the novel of manners is satiric, and it always realistic in depiction. Examples include Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and various works by Edith Wharton.

NOVEL OF SENSIBILITY: See sentimental novel.

NOVELETTE: See discussion under novella.

NOWELL CODEX: The common scholarly nickname for the medieval manuscript that contains Beowulf. The official designation for this manuscript is Cotton Vitellius A.xv. You can click here to see the first page of Beowulf as it appears in the Nowell Codex. Cf. manuscript.

NUMERIC ADVERB: One of several possible numbering methods in a language's grammar. For a discussion of numeric adverbs, see multiplicatives.

NUMEROLOGY: Number symbolism, especially the idea that certain numbers have sacred meanings. Classical Hebrew writers, following the lead of other Mesopotamian cultures, often embody certain numbers with sacred meanings--such as three, seven, twelve, forty, etc., an idea that develops more fully under the medieval kabalah. Many medieval authors such as Dante use poetic structure to convey theological ideas, such as Dante's use of terza rima in collected groups of thirty-three stanzas per canto in The Divine Comedy, or the Pearl Poet's elaborate numerological symbolism in Pearl. The standard reference book is Vincent Hopper's Medieval Number Symbolism. Other cultures with different numerological systems will attach different meanings to specific numbers--for intance, the number thirteen is widely seen as unlucky in Egypt and Europe, but in Chinese, the numbers four and 14 are the unlucky ones, given that the numbers are nearly homophonic with the Mandarin word for "death." In the northern Germanic tradition, pagan sources seemed to attach particular significance to the numbers 9, 15, and 50, and so forth. Tolkien plays with this idea to some degree in The Hobbit (where the 15 travelers of Gandalf, the Dwarves, and Bilbo Baggins correspond the band of 15 heroes who show up at Heorot, and so forth). Click here for more information.

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I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • Anderson, Douglas. "Note on the Text" in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
  • Baugh, A. C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 6th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 2013.
  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
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