Definition of Eponym
An eponym is a person, place, or thing from which something takes its name. Examples of eponyms are far-ranging, from book titles to time-periods to medications. It is easy to understand how eponyms develop: inventions often take on the name of the scientist or engineer, geographical locations take on the name of the discoverer, and trends are named after the famous people that started them. For example, the Affordable Care Act in the Unites States is rarely known as such; instead, proponents and detractors both refer to it as “Obamacare.”
A second and slightly different definition of eponym is that it can also refer to a brandname that is then adopted as the generic name, such as aspirin, kleenex, and thermos.
The word eponym comes from the Greek word epōnumos, which meant “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something,” originally from the prefix epi-, meaning “upon” and the word onoma, meaning “name.”
Common Examples of Eponym
Eponyms are prevalent in many different fields, such as medicine, mathematics, architecture, and history. Here are a few eponym examples from these different fields:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Apgar score
- Cesarean section
- Elizabethan Age
- Edwardian Age
- Age of Pericles
- Nixon Era
- Kennedy’s Camelot
Mathematics and Physics
- Euler’s constant
- Avogadro’s number
- Doppler effect
- Pythagoras theorem
- Eiffel Tower
- Dorian columns
- Leaning Tower of Pisa
- Tudor architecture
- Saint Peter’s Basilica
Significance of Eponym in Literature
There are countless famous characters and events from literature that have given their names to enduring concepts. In a sense, an eponym is like an allusion, as there is often greater understanding when a speaker knows the original place where a name came from. However, it is not necessary for the general public to understand the eponymous source for a new word in order to adopt it. We will see some of the most famous texts that have given rise to new names below.
There are also countless books named after the title character, which is another example of eponym. Here are some famous examples of eponymous book titles:
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (and the rest of the Harry Potter series)
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Examples of Eponym in Literature
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.
(The Odyssey by Homer)
Homer’s Odyssey is one of the most famous adventure quests ever written. There are two pertinent examples of eponyms at work here; the first is the fact that main character is named Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and the text takes its title from his name. The second is the usage of the word “odyssey” to describe any epic journey, which an eponymous usage of the title of the narrative that has entered popular culture. There are also numerous ways in which the word “odyssey” has been used in new business enterprises, music, and entertainment. The above quote is an example of the reasons that the word “odyssey” has come to stand for anything epic; the character Odysseus is “made all of iron,” and forces his men “to blunder along.” There is something godlike in Odysseus’s personality.
FAUSTUS: Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
MEPHISTOPHELES: Yes Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
FAUSTUS: How comes it, then, that he is prince of devils?
MEPHISTOPHELES: O, by aspiring pride and insolence,
For which God threw him from the face of heaven.
(Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe)
Just like Homer’s Odyssey, Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is eponymous in its title, which refers to the protagonist. In the play, Dr. Faustus makes a deal with Lucifer that he will have a devil named Mephistophilis as his personal servant for 24 years, after which he will die and give his soul over to Lucifer to spend the rest of his time in Hell. The eponymous word “faustian” has come to mean any bargain or deal in which someone gives up his or her morals or principles to obtain wealth and benefits.
Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black mustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner. 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.
(1984 by George Orwell)
The term Big Brother was first coined by George Orwell in his dystopia 1984, and represented an omniscient force that could surveil all the residents of the land. “Big Brother” later entered common parlance as any form of government surveillance over its own people. In fact, so many of the terrifying futuristic predictions that Orwell wrote about in 1984 have come true that certain governments and their laws are called “Orwellian.”
[T]here can be no doubt that behind all the pronouncements of this court, and in my case, behind the arrest and today’s inquiry, there exists an extensive organization […] And the purpose of this extensive organization, gentlemen? It consists of arresting innocent people and introducing senseless proceedings against them, which for the most part, as in my case, go nowhere. Given the senselessness of the whole affair, how could the bureaucracy avoid becoming entirely corrupt?
(The Trial by Franz Kafka)
In Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, the protagonist K is arrested and tried for a crime that he is never told about. The legal proceedings in the trial are convoluted and without understandable rules. The complicated and inaccessible bureaucracy has led to the word “Kafkaesque.” This term is applied to any similar situation in which it’s impossible to get from problem to solution due to bureacracy.
Every Who Down in Whoville Liked Christmas a lot…
But the Grinch,Who lived just north of Whoville, Did NOT!
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
(How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss)
In a more light-hearted example of an eponym, the creative author Dr. Seuss made up the name “Grinch” for his hard-hearted villain character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss was famous for his wordplay and creation of new terms. The Grinch is a particularly memorable character due to his scheming and his heart, which Seuss writes, “was two sizes too small.” The Grinch does everything he can to destroy the celebration of Christmas beloved to the people of Whoville. The term grinch is now applied to anyone miserly or against fun and celebration.
Test Your Knowledge of Eponym
1. Which of the following statements is the best eponym definition?
A. A name that someone takes for their own personal name from a famous place or thing.
B. A nickname or descriptive term that’s added to someone’s name that becomes part of common usage.
C. A famous person, place, or thing which lends its name to something new.
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2. Which of the following scenarios would most likely lead to the development of an eponym?
A. A physicists sets forth a new theorem.
B. An old town loses its inhabitants and becomes a ghost town.
C. An architect designs a project in an already-famous style.
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3. Which of the following book titles is an example of an eponym?
A. Middlemarch by George Eliot
B. Emma by Jane Austen
C. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
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