New York Times: Bannon is 'Not Merely a Svengali'
Svengali (“a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another”) rose to the top of our lookups in the early hours of January 31st, 2017, following the use of the word by The New York Times editorial board to describe Steve Bannon.
But a new executive order, politicizing the process for national security decisions, suggests Mr. Bannon is positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.
—The New York Times (editorial), 30 Jan. 2017
The word comes from an 1894 novel written by George du Maurier, Trilby, which features prominently in it a maleficent musician and hypnotist named Svengali.
He’s a bad fellow, Svengali—I’m sure of it! He mesmerized you; that's what it is—mesmerism! I’ve often heard of it, but never seen it done before. They get you into their power, and just make you do any blessed thing they please—lie, murder, steal—anything! and kill yourself into the bargain when they’ve done with you! It’s just too terrible to think of!
—George du Maurier, Trilby, 1894
The novel was so popular, and the figure of Svengali so striking, that it took almost no time at all before the name began to be used in an allusive sense to refer to a person who exerts undue control over another.
He Was A Svengali. An Omaha Doctor is Under the Control of a Spiritualist.
—Cleveland Plain Dealer (headline), 2 Oct. 1895
If other news organizations follow the lead of the Times, and continue to refer to Bannon as a Svengali, it will perhaps manage to eclipse in popularity the other eponymous word that came to our language from this du Maurier novel: the trilby. Although this peculiar hat is not identified as such in the book, it was worn in a London stage production of the book, and through this association took its name.
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