We all know what we mean when we call someone an Einstein. ‘There’s Tom clutching his books as he walks to the labs, a real little Einstein.’ We mean someone who’s really clever, or aspires to be, usually in science. Often we’re being sarcastic, though – ‘Well done, Einstein!’ This is an example of antonomasia – the use of a proper name to express a general idea (OED)*. We often use a historical or Biblical figure, and sometimes a figure from literature. My brother’s a real Scrooge – he didn’t put a penny towards our mum’s present. That football player who played for a team you support and went to play for a team you don’t like – ooh! – only the term Judas can encompass that level of betrayal!
Usually used with humour, this sort of name calling can add a bit of colour to descriptive or narrative writing, or provide useful short descriptions in articles and reviews. It can also make the writer seem quite knowledgeable, casually trotting out names from history and literature as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The dating game seems to be full of this sort of name calling. You will see Romeo used for a very romantic or love sick man, but not as often as you’ll hear someone being called a Casanova, a womanizer that is, after a womanizing Venetian adventurer of the eighteenth century. Casanova is used slightly disapprovingly – often mock-disapprovingly, but Lothario (a character from Don Quixote), despite also meaning womanizer, seems to have nastier connotations. When a journalist calls a rock star an ‘aging Lothario’, you can bet she doesn’t think much of the rock star. When she calls a young actor or model an Adonis, on the other hand, it means she may have more than a little crush on him. Adonis was the God of male beauty: notably, the only mortal God. Beauty doesn’t last, see?
Helen of Troy is synonymous with beauty – the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’, as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus had it. There’s no precise female equivalent of Casanova or Lothario, but a Jezebel is a shameless or immoral woman (OED) or a woman who uses her womanhood to lead a man astray, as the pagan princess Jezebel did King Ahab. The word has a high moral tone to it, and a religious connotation. It goes well with words like ‘wicked’ and ‘shameless’, and it lets you say something rather nasty without using a vulgar word.
Still in the Old Testament, a Solomon is a wise ruler – but can be used for anyone in a position of authority. Of all the prophets who railed against the immorality of the people and their rulers, it is Jeremiah’s name that has stuck – a name often thrown at doom-saying or moralising newspaper commentators. From Greek mythology again, Cassandra is a name for someone who is predicting disaster but not being listened to. A Pollyanna on the other hand, after the cheerful soul in Eleanor H. Porter’s novel, will always see the best of things. Doctor Pangloss – or just Pangloss, from Voltaire’s Candide, has the same tendencies, declaring ‘We live in the best of all possible worlds’ despite all evidence to the contrary.
Describe the scene in a sleazy town centre at night. Use a few examples of antonomasia.
I should mention that the word ‘antonomasia’ also has another meaning – to describe ‘the substitution of an epithet or a title for a proper name’, e.g. the maid of Orleans for Joan of Arc.