In "The Light Princess" by George MacDonald, the king consults "two very wise Chinese philosophers" about the princess's condition.1 The philosophers are named "Hum-Drum" and "Kopy-Keck." The story is full of puns, and these faux-Chinese names would seem to be no exception.

Hum-Drum is described as "a Materialist... slow and sententious"; his name is clearly a play on the word humdrum: "lacking variety or excitement; dull; boring." So far, so good.

However, I'm not coming up with a similar play on words for Kopy-Keck, who is "a Spiritualist... quick and flighty." Kopy sounds like "copy," perhaps, but "Keck" has me stumped. (I don't think the sense of "to vomit" has any bearing!)

This Quora post suggests "copycat," but I am unconvinced:

  • The post's author tries to explain the connection between "copycat" and "quick and flighty" by saying that cats are quick; but cats don't really have anything to do with the usual meaning of "copycat."
  • Etymonline informs that "copycat" is first attested in American English in 1884, although the word is "probably at least a generation older"; still, it seems unlikely that MacDonald, a Scottish writer, would be making a pun on the term in a story published in 1864, twenty years earlier.

And in any case, it's unclear that Kopy-Keck has a tendency to "copy" anything. He propounds a theory that the princess has no gravity because her soul is from another planet and therefore is not attracted to the Earth, and he suggests that she can be cured by being taught extensively about the Earth so that she takes an interest in it. I can see the connection here to being a "Spiritualist," but that's it.

So, the question: What is the significance of the name Kopy-Keck? Is it a pun or play on words? If so, on what?

1 Chapter 7, "Try Metaphysics"--available at Project Gutenberg

2 Answers 2


The essay Jesting in Earnest by Daniel Gabelman, included in the book Re-Embroidering the Robe: Faith, Myth and Literary Creation since 1850 seems to imply the pun in the name may be "Copy Kant". Here's the relevant passage.

Kopy-Keck, perhaps a caricature of the Metaphysical Society and their misapplication of Kant and the idealists, believes the princess needs to study every possible history of the earth

Kant contributed strongly to the field of Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with abstract thought. His connection with the title of the story is obvious.

"Keck" for "Kant" seems a linguistic stretch, but there is evidence this is correct. First, your original Quora source suggests that "Keck" is a valid Chinese name, so it may be that MacDonald was attempting to keep it as authentic sounding as possible:

"Keck" is a legitimate Chinese name (see: Keck Kiong Te)

"Hum" is also a potential Chinese name component, as it is the pronunciation of the surname "Tan" in certain Chinese languages and dialects.

Second, footnote 13 in the current edition of the book, presumably added by the editor U. C. Knoepflmacher, alludes to this being the case:

given the "materialist" and "spiritualist" affiliations of the two madmen, their names may suggest the absurd misapplication of the philosophical positions held, respectively, by Hume and Kant.

In which case "Hum-Drum" does not just mean boring and everyday, but is also a nice play on the name "Hume". Given that this name, then, is a double pun, it may well be that the similarity between Kopy Keck and copycat is also intentional - a joke on "Kant's copycats".

Kant's ideas on religion are complex and continue to invite debate, to the point where there is disagreement on whether or not he was an atheist. The Metaphysical society, however, attempted to use his ideas (and those of other philosophers) to understand God from an objective viewpoint in a marriage of religion and science.

Unsurprisingly, after ten years of fruitless debate, they gave up having produced little of value. They "copied" Kant without really understanding his ideas.

If this is so, then Kopy-Keck is a manifestation of spiritual thinking, while Hum-Drum is a manifestation of empirical science. Given that both present ridiculous ideas and are inflexible in their application, the message may be that extremes are inherently ridiculous. That only by looking at both science and spirit can we "cure the Princess" i.e. come to understand the human condition.

  • "Keck" is a legitimate Chinese name - are "Hum" or "Drum" also legitimate Chinese names?
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 2, 2018 at 10:48
  • @Randal'Thor I don't know - that wasn't part of the question since the OP said they accepted it as "Chinese sounding". I include it as a possible reason for stretching "Keck" to sound like "Kant".
    – Matt Thrower
    May 2, 2018 at 11:03
  • I realise it's not directly relevant, but if Hum and Drum are un-Chinese, then the idea that "MacDonald was attempting to keep it as authentic sounding as possible" becomes less plausible as a reason for the Keckification of Kant.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 2, 2018 at 11:09
  • @Randal'Thor It seems that "hum", at least, is also a Chinese name component. I will add it to the answer en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tan_(surname)
    – Matt Thrower
    May 2, 2018 at 11:22

Given that MacDonald was a proud Scotsman and that he often used the Scots language/dialect in his books, a perusal of a dictionary may prove useful. Here is part of what The Dictionary of the Scots Language has on keck:

[O.Sc. kek(k)il(l), v. = 1., from c.1513, = 2., a.1550. A freq. form from Keck, v.3 Cf. also Mid. Du. Kekelen, to cackle.] (online, https://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/keckle )

And under Keckle we also find

To laugh with joy or excitement, to show signs of unrestrained eagerness or delight (Ags. 1849 Brechin Advertiser (22 May)

In the above Scots definitions we seem to find the direct opposite to Hum-Drum.

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