Glossary Home Literary Device

Eponym

An eponym is an allusion to a famous or legendary person whose name is given to some other thing. That might be an institution, object, person, or event.

The most common example of eponym comes from Homer’s Odyssey, whose main character is Odysseus. The hero’s name was used as the name of the epic poem. It is a common literary device in literature, time periods, industry, and more. The Affordable Care Act is another example. It’s often known as Obamacare, named for the President under whom it passed.

Sometimes the word eponym is also used to refer to a brandname that becomes generic. Such as asprin, google, and kleenex. 

Eponym pronunciation: eh-puh-nim

Eponym definition and examples

 

Definition of Eponym 

The word “eponym” comes from the Greek word “epōnumos,” meaning “given as a name” or “giving one’s name to someone.” An eponym is a person’s name that becomes synonymous with something else. Some of the best examples of eponyms are procedural and medical-based. For example, cesarean section, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Other fields, like mathematics, architecture, and history, also contain examples. In the latter, one can find the Elizabethan period, Nixon era, and Edwardian age. In math, there are examples like the Doppler effect, Avogadro’s number, and Pythagoras theorem. The world of architecture has examples like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Eiffel Tower. 

In literature, some of the best examples are books named after title characters. These include Ethan Frome, Harry Potter, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, and more. 

 

Examples of Eponyms in Literature 

The Odyssey by Homer 

Homer’s Odyssey is a classic example of an eponym. It is also one of the most famous epic poems and adventure stories ever written. The most important eponym in the story comes from the main character’s name, Odysseus, or Ulysses in Latin. The title is an adaption of his name and his since coming into everyday language to mean a quest or journey. Here is an excerpt from the poem in which his name is used, and the overall atmosphere of the story is demonstrated: 

You are a hard man, Odysseus. Your force is greater, your limbs never wear out. You must be made all of iron, when you will not let your companions, worn with hard work and wanting sleep, set foot on this land, where if we did, on the seagirt island we could once more make ready a greedy dinner; but you force us to blunder along just as we are through the running night, driven from the island over the misty face of the water.

Odysseus’ characteristics help define the type of story he’s involved in. He never wears out. He always has strength and energy. He’s determined to get his men home but is also always curious about the landscapes and people around him. The character has been so influential that there are several poems written about him and the broader storyline. For example, Ulyssesby Alfred Lord Tennyson and On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homerby John Keats.

 

The Trial by Franz Kafka 

Franz Kafka’s works, and the terrifyingly dystopian worlds he created, have helped to turn his name into an eponym. Today, a story is described as Kafkaesque, as many of the features found in The Trial. This is one of his best-known novels. It features “K,” a man who’s arrested and tried for a crime that he’s never told about. The legal proceedings are confusing and seemingly lawless. No matter what he does, he can’t get a straight answer about what’s going on. He’s trapped in a bureaucratic world there’s no escape from. Here are a few lines from the novel that demonstrate Kafka’s writing: 

“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.” “That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.”

Here, K is speaking, and the priest responds terrifyingly. It becomes clear that there’s nothing K could say or do to escape from his fate. Nor, it seems, for him to even find out what he’s guilty of.

Read about Franz Kafka’s best books and stories.

 

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens 

Dickens’ Pickwick Papers is another novel that serves as a good example of how eponyms develop and are used. One of the writer’s most famous characters, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, features in the novel. He’s the head of the Pickwick Club in London. Along with his associates, he traveled around England, studying the countryside and trying to do good. Here is a brief quote from the novel:

“Such,’ thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond.”

His name is used for the club’s name, and today, “Pickwickian” is a term used to refer to one’s simple generosity. 

Explore Charles Dickens’ poems.

 

1984 by George Orwell

1984 is another great example of a novel that contains multiple eponyms. The first and most obvious comes from the writer’s name. Today, a dystopian series of events is often referred to as “Orwellian,” referring back to the nature of Oceana and Winston Smith’s experiences. “Big Brother” is another great example. He was a specific, although ambiguous, character from the novel whose name is now used to refer to any overarching, shady government body. Here is a quote from the novel that demonstrates how “Big Brother” was used as well as what an Orwellian world is like:

There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC.

The environment is dark, dirty, and extremely uninviting. No matter where Winston goes, he’s faced with the eyes of Big Brother and the knowledge that if he steps out of line, something unspeakably terrible will happen to him.

Read about George Orwell’s best books. 

 

Related Literary Terms

  • Prologue: the opening to a story that comes before the first page or chapter. It is used to establish context or to provide necessary details.
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context.
  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Anachronism: an error in the timeline or chronology of a piece of literature. This can be a purposeful or accidental error.

 

Other Resources 

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