In Norton Juster's witty wacky fantasy The Phantom Tollbooth, during their stay in the Dictionopolis dungeon Milo and Tock meet a witch Which. She used to be in charge of selecting which words to use, hence her title of Which, until she became too miserly with words and got banished to the dungeon where now people fear her as a witch. But while I understand the wordplay and significance in her title, her name still puzzles me: Faintly Macabre, or Aunt Faintly as she kindly allows Milo to call her. Is there any significance in this, or any reason that name might be chosen for a kindly Which?

(Most probably by pure coincidence, I once read another kids' fantasy series featuring a Scottish witch called Macabre. I mention this on the offchance that it isn't coincidence.)


2 Answers 2


As you said, the literal meaning of the words humorously indicates a less-threatening witch. A possible reason for the exact choice of "Faintly Macabre" is that, when spoken quickly, it sounds a lot like a name, more than your proposed similar names "Mildly Disturbing" and "Slightly Scary" do. For example, "Macabre" sounds a bit like "MacArthur" or other "Mac-"/"Mc-" last names. And many female first names in English end in "-y", like "Dorothy", "Rosemary", and "Hilary", including some "-ly" ones like "Emily", "Beverly", "Lesley", and "Shirley". "Faintly Macabre", "Miss Macabre", "Aunt Faintly", etc. all seem to me like they could "flow" in speech like an ordinary, unremarkable name. Plus, using less common, more academic words helps with this effect, making it easier to half-forget that they're real words and imagine it as a real name.

  • Interesting point. Especially for Macabre, as this argument is less strong to support Faintly over other "-ly" words like Mildly or Slightly. But then maybe the choice of Faintly wasn't so important.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 18, 2020 at 17:23

It's merely a mild pun. Her association with witches makes her macabre, disturbing, but only faintly so.

  • 1
    I know the literal meaning, but I'm asking why that particular choice of words, rather than e.g. Mildly Disturbing or Slightly Scary. Words and names in The Phantom Tollbooth are often chosen with great care to reflect the allegorical nature of the characters.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 11, 2020 at 13:03
  • 2
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    – Tsundoku
    Aug 12, 2020 at 8:52

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