Lo·​li·​ta | \ lō-ˈlē-tə How to pronounce Lolita (audio) \

Definition of Lolita

: a precociously seductive girl


English has a good number of eponyms, words taken from the name of a real or imaginary person. In some cases, particularly when the word is drawn from the name of a fictional character, it may take on or discard meanings, as when Romeo is used to simply mean “a male lover,” with no hint at the tragedy the character faces in Shakespeare’s play. Similarly Frankenstein has become for some so disassociated from the name of the doctor who created the monster that we provide the definition “a monster in the shape of a man.”

In some cases it can be disconcerting when an eponym strays in meaning. In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, the character Lolita is a child who is sexually victimized by the book’s narrator. The word Lolita has, however, strayed from its original referent, and has settled into the language as a term we define as “a precociously seductive girl.” This definition is based on a considerable body of evidence of the word as it is used in published English prose; it is not intended to be a lexicographic reflection of Nabokov’s creation.

The story goes like this: a would-be pop star and Hispanic Lolita from the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen, hungry for fame and hoping to crash the Big Time, takes the D train from Manhattan to East Flatbush in Brooklyn. There she is greeted by an intimidating band of streetwise black musicians—Full Force, they call themselves. They're holding an audition for a singer to record: they want someone "with the eyes of a woman and the temperament of a girl." Loving her style, the band cuts a song with the teenager—"Lisa Lisa" they decide to call her. The record is a hit. Presto: a new star is born!
— Jim Miller, et al., Newsweek, 22 June 1987

Before Clueless hit two years ago, the press had already begun sniping: Citing her video-laden résumé, an Entertainment Weekly cover sneered, A STAR IS MADE. Then Silverstone confounded everyone, leapfrogging from low-rent cult Lolita to bona fide actress.
— David Handelman, Premiere, August 1997

As the woebegone heroine, Clara, the Bourne veteran Etta Murfitt gives a performance that tugs the heartstrings. Anjali Mehra is equally effective as the snotty, selfish Sugar, a veritable Lolita in crinolines.
— Allen Robertson, The Times (London), 6 Dec. 2003

The definition of Lolita reflects the fact that the word is used in contemporary writing without connotations of victimization. Words often depart in meaning from the meanings of their sources, and this is as true for those which have come from names as it is for those which have sprung from less easily identified origins.

First Known Use of Lolita

1959, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for Lolita

from Lolita, character in the novel Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

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Cite this Entry

“Lolita.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.

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