25 Eponyms as Literary Wordplay

By Daniel Scocco

Several DailyWritingTips.com posts have focused on, for example, phenomena and ideas named after people, and concepts or objects identified by the names of historical figures. This entry specifically suggests mythological, literary, and historical eponyms that may inspire you to employ such terms in fiction writing as cloaked allusions to characters or things. Think of these examples and others as akin to puns:

  • A law firm named Bowler, Derby, Fedora, Stetson, and Trilby. (Maybe these will be names of characters in the upcoming film version of Lidsville, the early- ’70s Saturday-morning TV show about a land of sentient hats.)
  • A star-crossed couple named Jeremiah, namesake of a pessimistic prophet from the Bible, and Cassandra, named after the Trojan woman blessed with the gift of prophecy but fated never to be believed.
  • A maid named Abigail. (In Victorian England, house servants were routinely stripped of their birth names and assigned ones considered more pleasant for their employers to utter, and Abigail was a common moniker for a housemaid.)
  • A vigilant or nosy neighbor named Argus, the name of the many-eyed monster of Greek mythology.
  • A heavily burdened character named Atlas, after the Titan in Greek mythology charged with holding up the heavens.
  • A place called the Augean Stables, named after the fabled stables of Augeas, the cleaning of which constituted one of the legendary twelve labors of Hercules.
  • A spy’s contact code-named Baedeker, after the name of the popular guidebook series, or Cicerone, after a word for a sightseeing guide (in turn named after the Roman orator and statesman Cicero).
  • A loud woman who’s always letting off steam named Calliope, after the strident steam-whistle instrument named in honor of the Greek muse of epic poetry.
  • A tormented woman named Catherine Wheeler, named after the Catherine wheel, a rotating fireworks wheel in turn inspired by a Catholic saint tortured on a wheel.
  • An elusive woman named Fata Morgana (or, more subtly, Morgan Fate), after the mirage phenomenon named for the Italian translation of the name of Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay (“fairy,” or “magician”).
  • An extremely attractive person named Mickey Finn, after a slang term for a drugged drink. (The active ingredient is sometimes called “knockout drops.”)
  • A ruminative character named Fletcher, after the health food faddist notorious for prescribing a quantifiable amount of chewing while eating.
  • An energizing character named Galvani, after the scientist who studied the stimulating effects of electricity.
  • A hapless company called Gordian Inc., named for the knot that could not be untied. (Alexander the Great reportedly solved the problem by severing the knot with his sword.)
  • An unhelpful character named Hobson, after the stable owner who hired out any horse a customer wanted, as long as the one selected was next in line to be used (hence the oxymoronic expression “Hobson’s choice”).
  • An arbiter named Hoyle, after the eponymous author of rules for card games (hence the nearly extinct expression “according to Hoyle”).
  • A race car driver or reckless motorist named Jehu (after the biblical king of that name notorious for his wild charioteering).
  • A drink named the Molotov cocktail, after the nickname for the bomb made from a bottle filled with inflammable liquid and ignited with a wick. (The bomb is in turn named after a Russian Communist politician.)
  • An impostor named Pinchbeck, after the watchmaker whose created an inexpensive alloy resembling gold.

Hundreds of eponyms are available for enlivening satirical or otherwise humorous prose.

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17 Responses to “25 Eponyms as Literary Wordplay”

  • Joan

    LOVE IT! My students will be taking part in National Novel Writer’s Month (NaNoWriMo.org) November challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the Month of November. May I allow them to use these some of eponyms in their novels?

  • thebluebird11

    In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has a lot of plays on various kinds of words, including names, which off the top of my head I can’t think of right now because I’m at work and in a different “mental zone,” but just one example would be Sirius Black, who can morph into a black dog. I love when writers do that and I can figure them out. Some admittedly would be above the heads of people who haven’t read enough (like Cassandra, Catherine Wheeler or Cicerone). I always wonder why writers or film-makers choose certain names for their characters, if there is any significance.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Charles Dickens was a master at this! In “Bleak House” alone, almost all of the characters have inspired names: Esther Summerson, who warms everyone’s heart; Ada Clare, the pure young woman who believes in her wastrel cousin; Guppy, the wet-behind -the-ears law clerk, who pursues Esther; Miss Flite, the batty bird collector; Harold Skimpole, the self-described innocent who is really a con man; Lady Dedlock, whose heart was numbed by a doomed love affair — the list is delightful, and Dickens does it in novel after novel. If the names aren’t clear cut eponyms, they catch the essence of the characters.

  • Florence

    The last point…shouldn’t it be “who’s”, or am I reading it incorrectly?
    Good info, though. Thank you.

  • shirley in berkeley

    The Dickens names I suggest are not eponyms, as are “Mae West,” “Sandwich,” “Half Nelson,” and “Full Gaynor” (–no idea who Nelson and Gaynor were), but do suggest ways to add another dimension to the characters in a story.

  • Mark Nichol

    Joan:

    Sure. I hereby release them to the public domain.

  • Mark Nichol

    Joan:

    P.S.: But encourage them to think up or research their own as well.

  • Peter

    If the names aren’t clear cut eponyms, they catch the essence of the characters.

    Which, IMO, is about the worst thing an author can do, aside from flat out bad writing. Unless there’s some explanation for the characters being named according to their jobs or attributes, please don’t do it

  • shirley in berkeley

    Peter –

    What I meant to say was, “While the Dickens names above are not eponyms, they DO catch the essence of the characters.”

    Does this address your objection?

  • Stephen Thorn

    Mark, I agree with your concept that veiled eponyms can be both fun (for writer and reader) and illustrative. Years ago I created a fictional mental hospital for dangerous and severaly disturbed patients and named it Daedalus Institute for the Criminally Insane after the builder of the Labyrinth, which imprisoned the Creten Minotaur in its twisting, seemingly-unending corridors.

    One of the delicious tasks a writer of fiction faces is creating the perfect name for his characters. Names can make or break a character (who would remember Count Darryl [Dracula] or Baron Von Jones [Frankenstein] or Jack, the Guy with a Knife [the Ripper]?) or place in your story, and an appropriate eponym is a handy and clever way to devise a name your reader will remember long after the last page is turned.

  • Peter

    What I meant to say was, “While the Dickens names above are not eponyms, they DO catch the essence of the characters.”

    Does this address your objection?

    No…that’s exactly what I was objecting to 🙂 Real people don’t have names that “capture their essence”. When characters in a story do, it’s disconcerting…I spend more time wondering why they happen to have developed attributes (profession, etc.) that match their name than reading the story 🙂 (If it’s explainable, such as a spy’s code name, etc., as mentioned above, that’s OK…)

    (Though, FWIW the Roman orator’s name, “Cicero,” is a similar thing; it means “garbanzo bean”, in reference to a growth on the nose of one of his ancestors…but if an author had made it up, given him the eponymous growth, and then given his family that name from before he was born, that would bother me — how did they know he was going to have the growth in the future?)

    who would remember Count Darryl [Dracula] or Baron Von Jones [Frankenstein] or Jack, the Guy with a Knife [the Ripper]?)

    Well, “von Jones” would be pretty memorable…and if “Mack the Knife” works, why not “Jack”? 🙂

  • shirley in berkeley

    Oh, Peter, what can I say. Dickens did it for the fun of it, and his books are meant to entertain. Even so, FWIW, I think he wouldn’t have been too crazy about all the smiley faces.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Nice to know one is slowly becoming extinct, and that folks have no idea about the infamous legacy of Mr.Hoyle.

    I use the expression “according to Hoyle” often and it is never questioned. Not one person has yet asked about the whereabouts of the wise, noble and highly-regarded Mr Hoyle. Such an edge to have this fellow at your beckon call with retort in tenuous negotiations.

    However, I think to keep the whereabouts of my long-trusted friend a secret is prudent. And so upon my tomb you may mark and put to rest once and for all the legacy of the wise, noble and highly-regarded Mr Holye. With these revealing words… “The Last Stand…According to Holye”

    Terry
    First Financial Insights Inc.

  • Kirc

    Some people may be geeks but act like dorks once in a while. 🙂

  • Joan

    Peter / Shirley,

    Whether true or veiled eponyms, I agree with Shirley (and apparently many authors) that these types of literary, historical, or biblical allusions are just plain fun. This is what makes their writing interesting, memorable and ‘meaty’

    Though it may be disconcerting to some, it is fiction after all, and we must view it as such. In theatrical productions and film we are asked to ‘suspend disbelief’ when something seems too outragious, obvious, or contrived.

    And speaking as an English teacher, anything to keep the students actively involved in their reading is golden! These types of allusions are great discussion points – a way to connect all great stories in ‘the great conversation’

  • Cecily

    Marvyn Peake (famous for the Gormenghast books) had Dickens’ talent for choosing names that aren’t actually epoynms, but have strange related qualities. China Miéville explained it better than I can:

    “It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake’s strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself… such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. ‘Prunesquallor’ is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear.”

  • Anna

    Just signed on to DWT, and I am loving it! I know this is an old post, but as an Orthodox Christian I must offer to set the record straight regarding your suggestion of the name Catherine Wheeler: St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was martyred in the early 4th century, is a saint venerated by Catholics but hardly a Catholic saint, since the Roman Catholic Church didn’t exist separately from the Orthodox Church at that time. Her relics are kept at St. Catherine’s (Orthodox) Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and she is venerated by the church as St. (K)Catherine the Great Martyr.

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