In the name of Antonomasia

A parent’s heart fills with pride when the cricket coach describes their child as a young Sachin Tendulkar whereas a person’s heart is likely to sink when he hears himself wryly referred to as Scrooge!

The people under reference here are neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Scrooge. What is happening is that their identifying traits are being likened to a famous personality, real or literary. This substitution of an epithet or title for a proper name as well as the use of a proper noun to express a general idea (e.g, a Scrooge for a miser) is antonomasia.

The word antonomasia originates from the Greek verb antonomazein, which means ‘to name differently’, and was first used in England around 1500 A.D. There are several types of antonomasia. If you refer to someone’s wife as ‘the Missus’ or the Pope as ‘His Holiness,’ that’s antonomasia as well because you are substituting an honorific for the person’s given name.

The most interesting antonomasia is associated with literary characters. In such cases, a character is given a name that suggests their main personality trait, e.g, ‘Squire Allworthy’ or ‘Captain Awesome’. Sometimes, the idea is flipped around and a common word is used to refer to a notable person. For instance, William Shakespeare is often referred to as the ‘Bard’. A school teacher will announce: “We will be reading four plays by the Bard this semester: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Antonomasia is also very common in epic poetry. The legendary Greek poet Homer frequently refers to Achilles as Pelides (i.e. son of Peleus). A frequently used antonomasia in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance was the use of the term ‘the Philosopher’, a reference to Aristotle. ‘The Boy Who Lived’ and ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ are antonomasia recognisable by Harry Potter fans.

On the other hand Indian Bollywood fans are accustomed to saying “Wow, you have a budding Lata Mangeshkar in your family” or “the teacher is as scary or strict as Gabbar Singh.”

Famous cities are oft referred to by their descriptive traits. Chicago is ‘the windy city’ while Paris is ‘the city of light.’ New York City is ‘the big apple’ while Jaipur is ‘the pink city’.

Sometimes we conjure up our own descriptive terms to define people. For instance instead of saying “He was grumpy today, with everything rubbing him up the wrong way,” we might say “Mr Grumpy was being his usual self today.” It’s also common for a woman in love to call her beau Mr. Right instead of saying “He is the right one for me.” “He is a Casanova” is a term frequently used for womanisers, as Casanova was an Italian adventurer who lived a bohemian life. A ‘regular Benedict Arnold’ denotes a traitor while Tarzan is used for anyone with wild habits. These are everyday examples of antonomasia in conversation.

Take a guess
Just as ‘The Bard’ refers to William Shakespeare, there are honorifics which are commonly used for other famous personalities. Can you guess them?
The Fab Four
The Don
The Great Commoner
The Iron Lady
Man of Steel
The Boss
The King
The Wall

Roopa Banerjee




Beatles 2. Sir Donald Bradman 3.Winston Churchill 4. Margaret Thatcher 5. Joseph Stalin 6. Bruce Springsteen 7. Elvis Presley 8. Rahul Dravid

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