Fictional characters gave their names to words too

Blurb, zany, and pants are all eponymous words with origins in the names of fictional characters – and there’s plenty more to be found.


Eponymous words (which we talked about last week) don’t only derive from the names of real people. Many have come from the names of fictional characters as well. 

Take blurb, for example. In 1907, American humorist Gelett Burgess poked fun at the way publishers had begun to advertise their books by filling the back cover with enthusiastic endorsements. He created a mock jacket for his own book that featured a picture of “Miss Belinda Blurb,” a woman with her hand to her mouth, “in the act of blurbing.” Belinda’s blurb is a great example of the genre: “When you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is ...” Today, too, it seems that every book needs at least one reviewer declaring it to be “genius!” or “unputdownable!”  

The words zany and pants would seem to have little to do with each other, but they both come from the commedia dell’arte, a theater tradition that originated in 16th-century Italy. These improvisational plays usually involved a pair of young lovers who wanted to marry, but were thwarted by their buffoonish fathers, and were helped out by clever servants. The servant characters were called zanni (the Venetian form of Giovanni or John), and they provided much of the comedy. In English, zany is “fantastically or absurdly ludicrous”; in other words, it is like a clown in an old play.  

One of the father figures of the commedia was a miserly merchant named Pantalone, whose traditional costume resembled a pair of red footie pajamas. This character was known as Pantaloon in English, and in the 17th century gave this name to a style of loose, baggy trousers. By 1835, pantaloon had been shortened to pants, which refers to any sort of trousers in American English. 

Mrs. Malaprop is the fictional counterpart to W.A. Spooner, whom we talked about last week. She appears in R.B. Sheridan’s 1775 play, “The Rivals,” and is famous for her malapropisms, the “use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context.” Thus she describes one person as “the very pineapple of politeness,” instead of “the pinnacle,” and another as “strong as an allegory,” when she means alligator. Her name itself derives from the French mal à propos, “inappropriate.”  

What connects a 16th-century epic poem with rap music? It’s Braggadochio, a character in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” Braggadochio is a knight who brags about his prowess, and his name was adopted into English to mean “idle boasting.” In the 1980s, the word was embraced by American rappers to describe their own boasting about their skills. So when Jay-Z raps, for example, “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man,” it’s braggadocio. 

It would make a good blurb too.

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