Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Eponymous Characters in Literature

It's Wordy Wednesday again. Last week one of the words I mentioned was Panglossian, which comes from Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's Candide, and defined, in the words of Pangloss himself: "marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds." (source)

I was trying to think of more words from memorable characters in literature -- so memorable that their name became a word and they became eponymous. I digress to call out that wonderful word eponymous, meaning a person that gave his or her name to a word or a concept or even to a physical thing, like (shudder) Trump Tower. Or the derived concept.

You probably know quite a few such words yourself. I thought of these:
  • The term Uncle Tom often appears in discussions of current events. You probably know that its origin is a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dictionary offers two meanings:
    -- "a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals), and also
    -- "a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority."

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin also includes the character Simon Legree, a name that has become synonymous with a cruel slave driver.

  • Nabokov's book Lolita is the source of the word lolita -- "a precociously seductive girl."

  • From Shakespeare: a Romeo is, of course, a handsome lover.

  • Caliban by Rackham
    Also from Shakespeare: a caliban, from the character in the Tempest, is a degraded or bestial man.

  • Yet another Shakespearean word -- sometimes the name Dogberry, a self-satisfied policeman in Much Ado About Nothing, is applied to similar officers of the law outside of the play. This one is a bit obscure, I think.

  • Many other Shakespeare characters' names are also used to indicate similar individuals of the same type -- Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Othello, Iago, Hamlet, Portia.

To return to panglossian -- it's one of several words that Merriam-Webster online includes in "A Who's Who of Literary Allusions: Words that Come from Characters in Books." Examples from this list:
  • W.C.Fields as Mr. Macawber.
    (All images from Wikipedia.)
    From David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: micawber -- "an improvident person who lives in expectation of an upturn in his fortunes."

  • From The Three Princes of Serendip by Horace Walpole: serendipity -- "an assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for."

  • From Gulliver's Travels by Swift: three words -- yahoo, lilliputian, and brobdingnagian -- which apply to three types of characters: boorish, very tiny, and gigantic.

  • My biggest surprise was finding that the name of the disease, syphilis, originated as the name of a character in a literary work!  "Syphilis was the name of the ostensible first sufferer of the disease, a shepherd and hero (if such a word can be used here) of the 1530 poem written by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus."

Other eponymous literary words on the dictionary list: pollyanna, pander, malapropism, milquetoast, gargantuan, pooh-bah, and quixotic. There must be many more such words, based on the enormous number of memorable characters in literature throughout the ages!

6 comments:

bermudaonion said...

What a fabulous post!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Really fun read! And I learned a few things -- always a good thing. Syphilis? Who knew?!!

Pam said...

Svengali, a domineering man, from the novel "Trilby" comes to mind. Now you've got me thinking for more! Seems like "yahoo" was also a rebel yell during the Civil War, but that was a good while after "Gulliver's Travels."

Mae Travels said...

Pam -- funny coincidence: my sister just read "Trilby" and wrote me about the word "svengali." She says the novel also gave its name to the hat. Thanks for commenting... mae

Pam said...

Ha! Go sister!

Sherry Mackay said...

Hi Mae
Such an interesting post. We don’t even realise how many words come from writers like Shakespeare for instance. Cheers S