roman à clef


ro·​man à clef rō-ˌmä(ⁿ)n-(ˌ)ä-ˈklā How to pronounce roman à clef (audio)
plural romans à clef rō-ˌmäⁿ-(ˌ)zä-ˈklā How to pronounce roman à clef (audio)
: a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise

Did you know?

Unlock the fiction, open the door and see the very real people behind it, wrote Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News (March 19, 1998). That can be easily done when a roman à clef uses fictitious names to present thinly veiled depictions of well-known people or events. But what if only a few insiders know the real people or incidents? In the 1800s, such romans a clef sometimes included a key, a list matching fictional characters with their real-life counterparts, that helped readers recognize the players. Such keys made "roman a clef" (from a French phrase meaning "a novel with a key") an apt term for such works. Nowadays, there are no published keys in a roman à clef - merely veiled (or sometimes blatant) references that connect fact with fiction.

Examples of roman à clef in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Reader, that salad dressing is from Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s roman a clef about her messy divorce from Carl Bernstein. Mark Peikert, Town & Country, 21 Oct. 2022 Plath’s roman a clef plops you into the 1950s, when women’s aspirations were chillingly constrained, partly by the kill switch of their sexuality., 29 July 2022 Weisberger had spent time as Wintour’s personal assistant and many saw her novel as a roman a clef, with names changed hardly to protect the not-so-innocent. Chris Jones,, 18 Sep. 2019 Neither combatant is mentioned in the novel; this is no roman a clef with characters standing in for them. Susan Page, USA TODAY, 3 June 2018

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'roman à clef.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


French, literally, novel with a key

First Known Use

1882, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of roman à clef was in 1882


Dictionary Entries Near roman à clef

Cite this Entry

“Roman à clef.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

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