Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao What's Up With the Title?

By Junot Díaz

What's Up With the Title?

You've probably thought it, so we're just going to say it: there are a lot of words in Junot Díaz's title, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We guess there's a lot going on in this here title. First, Díaz shares the name of his protagonist, Oscar Wao. Second, he combines English and Spanish language influences, which he does throughout the novel.

See, some of Oscar's classmates think he looks like the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. But because their first language is Spanish, they pronounce "Wilde" as "Wao." And that Spanish-inflected nickname sticks.

The rest of the title divulges quite a bit about the book's themes. We wish we came up with these insights on our own, but we'll have to credit John Lingam's essay in The Quarterly Conversation. Lingam cuts to the quick of Diaz's use of Spanish and English in the title:

The Dominican boys' accents lead to the title neologism [new word], and this linguistic playfulness gets to the essence of Diaz's greatest strength. The boys are assimilated enough to understand the European literary canon, yet their accents misshape the author's name into something different, a word that simultaneously echoes the name of another genocidal dictator [Mao Zedong] and an English-language expression for amazement.

So, what does all this fancy talk from Lingam mean? It means that the novel frequently makes use of two languages, Spanish and English. It draws on both Dominican and American culture.

The nickname "Oscar Wao," then, suggests a third language and culture. We might call the language of the book "Spanglish" and the culture "Dominican-American." And that third language and culture makes us say that old English-language expression for amazement: wow.

And the two words "brief" and "wondrous" get at what else is between this book's covers. In Wao, Diaz shares with us the quite amazing life of Oscar. It's a heartwarming and awe-inspiring coming-of-age story—that's the "wondrous" part. But, sadly, Oscar dies young—that's the "brief" part. So there you have it: now you know everything you need to know about this book's action-packed title.