Definition of Eponym
An eponym is a word coined from the name of an individual. For example, the name of a sandwich came from Earl Sandwich. The food item we refer to today as a sandwich is called after the Earl. This is when something acquires a name associated with an individual attached to it or the creator and/or sponsor of that thing. It comes about when a new thing appropriates the name of whoever popularized it..
Types of Eponym
There are a few different kinds of eponyms in language:
- Scientific eponyms – Diseases, laws, processes, or inventions named after scientists or doctors. Like “Parkinson’s disease” being named after Dr. James Parkinson or “Moore’s Law” after Gordon Moore.
- Brand eponyms – Brand names that become synonymous with a product. Like “Kleenex” tissue or “Xerox” copying.
- Cultural eponyms – Creative works named after an artist. Common with laws or principles like “Murphy’s Law.” Can also refer to inventions like “Braille” writing system named after its inventor.
- Geographical eponyms – Places and regions named after people connected to them. Cities like “Washington, D.C.” and countries like “Bolivia” are examples. Natural features like “Lake Victoria” also fall in this category.
Importance of Eponym in writing
Eponyms serve some key purposes in writing and communication:
Brevity – An eponym such as ‘Freudian slip’ gives the whole idea in a single word instead of describing it elaborately. This enables writers to write concisely.
Precision – When an eponym is well-known and used broadly, it contributes to the clarity of understanding as readers immediately perceive its meaning. For instance, it would be easier to understand a “Rube Goldberg machine” rather than explaining the concept from zero point.
Engagement – eponyms establish a relationship when readers can recognized one from mass culture or history. An approachable manner of writing can be achieved by using the familiar eponym.
A dash of color – judiciously selected eponyms bring turns of history and direct human link with writing. The use of an eponym such as ‘Herculean task’ makes writing a highly descriptive matter, full of Greek mythology imagery.
Common Examples of Eponym
- John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was an avid gambler who asked for a slice of meat tucked between two pieces of bread so he could eat while continuing to play – thus the “sandwich” was named after the eponymous Earl.
- Protesters adopted the tactic of ostracizing and cutting off supplies to the greedy English land agent Charles C. Boycott during Ireland’s Land War in 1880, thereby spawning the word “boycott” from Boycott’s name.
- French finance minister Étienne de Silhouette was only able to cut outlines of portrait silhouettes from black card as a cost-cutting replacement for painted portraits of the aristocracy, forever linking his name with the term “silhouette.”
- A man named Jean Nicot introduced the tobacco plant to France in the 1500s. He promoted it as having healing properties. The chemical nicotine was later named after him.
- George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. created the first Ferris wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Visitors were amazed by his invention, which came to bear his name.
eponym examples in literature
“Odyssey” by Homer
“I feared the brazen walls of Troy might fall beneath the sheer weight and power of that man, powerful as he was, dragging away stones that ten teams of the strongest wagons could not easily roll.”
Specifically, the writer compares Hector’s unbelievable strength to that of the legendary Greek hero Hercules by using the eponym “Herculean.” In Greek mythology, Hercules was known for his extraordinary power and completing seemingly impossible feats of strength. By calling Hector’s strength “Herculean,” Homer creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind emphasizing just how incredibly strong Hector was – so mighty that even the sturdy walls of Troy seem in danger of crumbling from his power. The hyperbolic metaphor of him moving stones ten teams of oxen could not conveys mythic levels of might.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”
Eponym has been employed in the passage when the writer mentions that the man seems “as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away”. Here, there is such a link as sensitive scientific equipment and reacting seismic processes. This comparison implies that he has a unique ability to perceive and understand subtle emotional signals, or ‘life’s promises’ others might have missed. Like these sensitive devices, this man detects signals imperceptible to most other people. The eponym gives the sense of unearthly sensitivity and almost eerie propensity, like he has some kind of a technology that is developed for enlightenment.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.”
Shelley is foreshadowing the creation of the Monster by Dr. Frankenstein. By referring to the yet-to-be-animated creature as “Frankenstein,” she links its existence and identity directly to its creator through his surname used as an eponym.
The effect this has is that Dr. Frankenstein and his creation are symbolically bound together – the Monster’s life, purpose, and fate tied inexorably to the man who fashioned him. Shelley’s use of “Frankenstein” as an eponym for the creature further emphasizes the extent to which Victor Frankenstein plays God in bestowing life.
“Sherlock Holmes” by Doyle
“So the sinister figure which I had observed upon the moor was really a man pursuing his wife?”
The aforesaid excerpt suggests the revelation or understanding that, in fact, a man who is following his wife had been observed on the moor – this person was previously obscure and even menacing. In this case, the use of an eponym may serve to accentuate either the reputation or notoriety of that person being chased after down here compared with his adversary. Such a type of plot technique may provide many details about the personalities and goals of all characters, developing their mystical side to create suspense around.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
“To Kill a Mockingbird is a simple story of a man named Atticus Finch who put his life at risk to stand up for what’s right.”
The name “Atticus Finch” contains an eponym in the first name “Atticus.” This is an allusion to the Roman orator Titus Pomponius Atticus. By naming Finch “Atticus,” the author creates an eponym – a word derived from a proper noun.
Specifically, “Atticus” has its origins in the classical Roman name which Lee selected purposefully. This eponym sets up rich associations given Atticus’ upright morality in defending Tom Robinson. The name “Atticus” suits this principled character, as it links him to ideals of wisdom, leadership, and social justice championed in antiquity by the real-life Atticus.
Paradise Lost by Milton
“Forthwith from council to the work they flew.
Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven; for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed In vision beatific.”
The term “Mammon” is an eponym derived from the biblical god of riches and avarice. By invoking this eponym to describe the “least erected Spirit,” Milton connects the fallen angel’s greed and obsession with material wealth to the origins of his name. The eponym thereby etches Mammon’s primary personality trait in the rich backdrop carried within the word itself – associations directly called out in descriptions of his “downward bent” gaze fixed on financial pursuits over higher ideals.
Northanger Abbey by Austen
“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for.”
The term “Radcliffian” is an eponym referring to the conventions of Gothic novels like those penned by Ann Radcliffe. By positioning Radcliffe as the foremother of such “charming yet unreal” Gothic tales, Austen uses the eponymous adjective to distinguish her own brand of domestic fiction as better representing “human nature” in everyday regional settings. The name-based eponym serves to crystallize Radcliffe’s defining literary style and contributions while critiquing her dominant influence over Austen’s genre as somewhat fantastically detached from plausible human experience.
Related Terms with Eponym
Here are two literary terms related to eponyms:
An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, event, statement, place or artistic work. Eponyms can function as literary allusions when a writer refers to an eponymous person or thing from broader culture. For example, referring to a “Herculean effort” alludes back to the mythic feats of Hercules through his name.
Metonymy is the substitution of a word, name or attribute for something else with which it is closely associated. Many eponyms function through metonymy, as the name of an associated person stands in for the larger phenomenon named after them. For example calling tissues “Kleenex” after the brand name is a metonym.
- Literary Devices that Start with E
- End Rhyme