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Words derived from fictional characters
May 06, 2011
Although most eponyms evolve from the names of real people, a surprising number originate in fictional characters.
We’ve all heard someone described as “a Romeo.” The Romeo celebrated as a great lover was invented by Shakespeare. Another Shakespearian personality whose name has entered the vernacular is Shylock, a scoundrel in The Merchant of Venice. Today, a shylock is a loan shark, a usurer, just as was the original Shylock.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge. If you’re a scrooge, you’re a penny-pincher.
In 1790, Robert Burns wrote a long narrative poem about a drunken Scot who, even so, must ride his horse home through a raging storm. Tam o’ Shanter stumbles upon a gathering of ghoulish, other-worldly creatures. Burns describes them as, “Warlocks and witches in a dance.” The devil is also there, noted by Burns as, “Auld Nick in shape of beast.”
The sole reference to Tam’s headgear is in line 83. Burns, in describing the wild ride through the storm, says: “Tam skelpt on thro’ dub and mire,/Despising wind and rain and fire;/Whiles holding fast his guid blue bonnet” (ll.81-83).
Tam’s “bonnet” was the common headgear of Scottish ploughmen. Owing to dye scarcity, these round, woollen hats were always blue. They had flat, circular crowns which sometimes sported pom-poms (toories, in Scots dialect).
It’s unknown why these bonnets became known as tam o’ shanters soon after Tam o’ Shanter (Tom of Shander) was published.
Then, almost 100 years later, a modified version of Tam’s bonnet became popular with women. When introduced in 1887, it was called a tam o’ shanter, but this was soon shortened to tam.
Faust (Faustus) is a fictional scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited power. Based on the legend of a real 15th-century German magician, Faust has fascinated scores of authors and composers. Well-known writers like Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, wrote about Faust. As well, some dozen or so operas deal with the Faust legend as do several movies and stage plays.
The adjective faustian/Faustian is used in different areas of interest. In literature, stories or characters are faustian if involved in deals with evil people. Any tale about pursuing temporary gain at the expense of honour is faustian.
Faustian also refers to modern society’s inability to foresee consequences. Mining Alberta’s oil sands regardless of environmental devastation has been labelled faustian.
Western civilization, based as it is on a go-for-it-no-matter-who-suffers philosophy, is seen as a faustian society.
A quixotic person has lofty, unrealistic ideals and lots of enthusiasm, but not much common sense or practicality. This adjective comes from Don Quixote, hero of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 book, Don Quixote of la Mancha. Quixote, intrigued by romantic stories of knights errant, decides to become a roving knight himself even though the days of chivalry are long gone.
Quixote’s adventures gave rise to quixotic, quixotical and quixotically, all found in English since 1688.