Death of a Salesman Vocabulary

Instructor: Becky Dotzel

Becky has taught high school and college level courses; she has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in secondary education.

Arthur Miller's play, ''The Death of a Salesman'', won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award when it debuted in 1949, and it has remained a classic American drama ever since. Understanding the key vocabulary in this work helps to increase our overall understanding of the characters, plot, and major themes.

Background and Summary of The Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller

This play tells the tragic story of Willie Loman, his family, and his failed American Dream of success. In order to fully understand Willie, however, we need to understand his past, and Miller provides this understanding through a series of flashbacks, a literary device that interrupts the natural, chronological flow of events within a story in order to provide necessary meaning and context. The flashbacks not only provide needed background knowledge, they also chronicle Willie's deteriorating mental state, his inability to accept the reality of his own life, and his failures and mistakes, most notably an affair he once had behind the back of his loyal wife, Linda. Death of a Salesman is an American drama, a type of narrative that is performed on stage. Understanding the vocabulary in this drama is very important, as it helps us to understand the characters, their emotions and actions.

Original Death of a Salesman cover
Book Cover Death of a Salesman

Act One Key Vocabulary

jovial - friendly and cheerful.

mercurial - Someone whose moods or behavior changes quickly and without notice.

'most often jovial, she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy's behavior -- she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him...' This passage describes how the cheerful Linda always sees the bright side of her husband's personality.

crestfallen - very disappointed.

'He was crestfallen, Willy. You know how he admires you.' Linda tries to reassure Willy that Biff was disappointed and sorry for the fight they had that morning.

reminiscences - a series of past experiences remembered.

'Remember how they used to follow him around in high school?... (He loses himself in reminiscences.)' Willy is remembering Biff's days as a high school football star; as the play progresses, Willy Loman falls deeper and deeper into his memories of the past.

idealist - someone who sees things as they should be, rather than as they are.

'You're a poet, you know that, Biff? You're a -- you're an idealist!' Happy's reaction to Biff, who explains how content he is doing farm work, but how being at home makes him feel as if he's wasted his life.

pompous - behaving in a formal, superior way.

'I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade.' Happy is describing his coworkers to Biff.

anemic - weak or feeble.

'What're you lookin' so anemic about, Bernard?' Willie is speaking of his nephew Bernard, who is trying to warn Willy that Biff is going to fail math and lose his university scholarship, but Willie ignores him.

valise - a small suitcase. The term was commonly used in mid-century dialect and is used several times throughout the play.

'He is dressed in a suit and a felt hat, carries a large valise.' Willie's brother, Ben, enters the room (as part of Willie's memories).


simonize - to polish a car.

'What a simonizing job, heh?' Willie is remembering the way Biff would polish his car.

fob - a chain attached to a watch.

'Whatever happened to that diamond watch fob? Remember? When Ben came from Africa that time?' Willie asks Linda where this item is, and she reminds him that he pawned it to pay for classes for Biff.

philandering - having casual, meaningless affairs with numerous women.

'Is this his reward- to turn around at the age of sixty-three and find his sons, who he loved better than his life, one a philandering bum...' Linda is criticizing her son, Happy, for the way he treats his father and women.

Act II Vocabulary

Studebaker - a car company (1852-1967).

'That goddam Studebaker!' Willie blames the car for his financial struggles.

carte blanche - total freedom to do or say anything.

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