Picaresque vs. picturesque

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Picaresque comes via French from the Spanish picaro, and it’s probably related to the verbs pique and prick. Its modern English definition is unchanged from its French and Spanish meaning. As an adjective, it means (1) roguish or (2) of or involving clever rogues and adventurers—which refers to a genre of satiric Spanish fiction. As a noun, picaresque refers to a person who embodies these qualities. Here are a few examples:

Jill Dawson’s vivid seventh novel is the picaresque tale of the childhood and later career of Queenie Dove, a female criminal. [Independent]

Fathers, and father figures, play a colossal role in the picaresque life of Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, an ophthalmologist whose lack of self-knowledge is only exceeded by his lack of self-confidence. [my SA]

Occasionally, picaresque is noun denoting picaresque works of fiction—for example:

There are several engaging moments in this rather ramshackle picaresque, including Amalric’s teasing nocturnal flirtation with garage attendant Aurélia Petit. [The Oxford Times]


Picturesque comes from the French pittoresque, which in turn comes from Italian and Latin words meaning painter. In modern English, picturesque means suitable for a picture or visually striking—for example:

Morba, nestled in the hills of Maharashtra state in India, is the sort of picturesque village that demands you take your camera out and snap away. [Mail & Guardian]

This picturesque town in Southwest Colorado boasts a perfect blend of down-to-earth cowboy charm, spectacular mountain-scape scenery and upscale dining and shopping. [Mlive.com]

In five days, we met federal and state officials in Rio, undoubtedly the most picturesque city in the world, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo … [Barossa Herald]