The Bard of Avon, The Rock, and The King of Pop aren’t just well-known historical and modern day figures. They are also examples of antonomasia, a literary device where you substitute a person’s proper name for a descriptive word or phrase. Originally, most antonomasia were used to describe a person’s class or occupation, like “The Bard of Avon” does for Shakespeare. Today, it is mostly used to express a specific characteristic about someone or memorialize a certain aspect of a person’s life or career like “The King of Pop” does with Michael Jackson.
As you dig deeper into the meaning of antonomasia, you might notice that there are two main antonomasia definitions. The first is when a person’s proper name is substituted for an epithet or title, like you saw with the figures above. The second is when you describe someone with a certain characteristic and use it as a proper noun.
Do you have someone in your life who has such a strong personality trait that you refer to them as such? You might be guilty of using the second definition of antonomasia. For example, as a mother, you might refer to your toddler as Mr. Cranky Pants instead of their proper name when the child is in a bad mood.
If you’re a computer science major who always helps their friends with their technology problems, they might endearingly call you Techie.
Where Antonomasia Comes From
While you likely use antonomasia more than you know today, this literary device has been used for thousands of years. With origins dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks, the word antonomasia itself has roots in the Greek language. It comes from the word antonomazein, which means “to name instead” or “call by a new name.”
A few of the oldest examples of antonomasia are Homer referring to Achilles as “Pelides” and the world referring to Aristotle as “The Philosopher.”
Digging into Examples of Antonomasia
The more you start looking around, the more you’ll find antonomasia just about everywhere. It’s easy to spot the popular rhetorical device in your English literature class, but antonomasia is also present in popular culture, movies, and more.
Antonomasia in Popular Culture
If you’re into celebrity pop culture, you might instantly know who The Rock, The Voice, and The Fab Four are. With celebrities as famous as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Whitney Houston, and The Beatles, you know their nicknames almost as well as you know their proper names.
On a darker side of things, well-known criminals are also given some sort of descriptive title since their proper names are unknown or journalists do not want their names to be popularized.
Antonomasia in Literature
If you crack open a few books, you’re likely to find an antonomasia in there somewhere. Some antonomasia have become so overused in English literature that they can be considered clichés. A few examples are:
- Mr. Right
- Your royal highness
- Tough guy
- Smarty pants
- Sleeping beauty
You might even know some famous literary examples of antonomasia in these characters in literature: “Two-Bit” Mathews and “Ponyboy” Curtis from The Outsiders. Famous characters or celebrities’ proper names can also be used as antonomasia themselves, since there are preconceived notions attached to their names.
For example, you could refer to a high school student experiencing young love as “Romeo” or “Juliet.” Or perhaps, you might call an adolescent boy with a lot of energy, “Tarzan.”
The Difference Between Antonomasia and Metonymy
If you already know a little bit about the literary device metonymy and you’re noticing a few similarities between it and antonomasia, you’re on to something. Antonomasia is in fact a type of metonymy, which is when you use a related piece of an object or subject to represent the entire idea.
In the quote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the pen is an example of metonymy because it represents words and writing in general. You have likely used metonymy if you have ever called your car your “ride” or told someone your favorite “dish” instead of your favorite meal.
What is the purpose of antonomasia?
As you learned earlier, some examples of antonomasia are used to memorialize a certain aspect of a person or character. In world literature, authors use antonomasia to call out an important trait or characteristic or make a statement. If you were writing a character-driven short story about a boy named Bobby the Brave and made him a coward, his antonomasia would make his cowardice even more obvious.
In your day to day life, you might give your friend a nickname just for fun, but it can also be used to give off a certain impression about that person. If you call one of your friends “Your Royal Highness” and the other “Sleeping Beauty,” the people who have heard you use those terms will have certain beliefs about them before even meeting them.
Analyzing Antonomasia in Your Life
Antonomasia is a figure of speech that is just as powerful today as it was thousands of years ago. If you’re still looking to get a better understanding of this device to use in your own writing, take note of how those around you interact with each other.
You might notice certain descriptions always be used for the same person or nicknames you’ve never really taken the time to understand. Consider starting a note in your phone or a page in a notebook where you can write down antonomasia you’ve noticed and ideas you have for antonomasia you can create. You’ll be using antonomasia like a pro in no time.