Historical Allusions

Historical Allusions

According to the Random House Dictionary, an allusion is “a passing or casual reference, either directly or by implication.” It is a common practice in literature to make allusions to a variety of sources. The following is a list of allusions to historical icons.

  • Attila: barbarian, rough leader; King of the Huns from 433-453 and the most successful of the barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire.
  • Benedict Arnold: Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), was a successful general for the American colonies during the Revolutionary War before switching sides and fighting for the British. His name has become synonymous with “turncoat.” Everything was going well until that Benedict Arnold, Diane, gave our trade secrets to the competition. 
  • Bowdlerize: Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) is best known as the editor of The Family Shakespeare, a popular edition in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” To bowdlerize is to remove potentially offensive passages from a work of literature or drama. A bowdlerized version of Sex and the City was created for syndication on broadcast TV. 
  • Boycott: Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland. In 1880, in the midst of controversy over the “Irish Land Question,” he and his family were ostracized by the community. An organized refusal to deal with, or buy from, a given person or company is now referred to as a boycott. 
  • Casanova: Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (1725–98) was a famous Venetian adventurer and writer who romanced well over a hundred women in the course of his travels. In modern parlance, a Casanova is a charismatic man with a reputation for having many romantic conquests. I know he’s a Casanova, but I can’t resist those eyes. 
  • Chauvinist: one who has a militant devotion to and glorification of one’s country, fanatical patriotism, prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group, or kind; after Nicolas Chauvin a legendary.
  • Derrick: a machine for hoisting and moving heavy objects, consisting of a movable boom equipped with cables and pulleys and connected to the base of an upright stationary beam, a tall framework over a drilled hole, esp. an oil well, used to support boring equipment; named after a London hangman Derick (1600).
  • Donnybrook: Donnybrook is the name of a village in Ireland that was home to an annual fair beginning in 1204. It became famous for drunken brawling, which led to the fair being permanently banned in 1855. A free-for-all brawl is now known as a donnybrook. Nobody was sure how the donnybrook started, but it landed three partygoers in the hospital. 
  • Draconian: A lawmaker in Athens in the 7th century B.C., Draco’s legal code was unusually severe, meting out the death penalty for minor offenses. Laws are now referred to as Draconian when they’re perceived as offering excessively harsh penalties. The activists sought to change the Draconian jaywalking laws. 
  • El Dorado: a place of reputed wealth; from the legendary city in South America, sought by early Spanish explorers
  • Horatio Alger: one who believes that a person can make it on his own merits; from (1832-99) American writer of inspirational adventure books.
  • Machiavellian: of or relating to Machiavelli or Machiavellianism, characterized by expedience, deceit and cunning; after Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1537), a philosopher known for his treaties and political expediency; wrote "The Prince" (1513)
  • Marathon: a long distance race; source of the Victory of the Greeks over Persians in 490 B.C.
  • McCarthyism: modern witch hunt, the practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversions with insufficient regard to evidence, the use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods, in order to suppress opposition; after Joseph McCarthy (1908-57), an American politician who as a US senator from WWI publicly accused many citizens of subversion
  • Nostradamus: fortune teller; (1503-66) French physician and astrologer who wrote a book of rhymed prophecies of Ireland.
  • Pyrrhic victory: Pyrrhus (c. 318 B.C.–272 B.C.), king of Epirus, won many battles but overextended himself. After defeating the Romans in 279 B.C. while sustaining very heavy losses, Pyrrhus declared “one more such victory and I am lost.” A pyrrhic victory is a victory won at too great a cost. In a Pyrrhic victory, he managed to grab the last muffin, but he lost the goodwill of his friends. 
  • Rich as Croesus: Croesus, king of Lydia until 547 B.C., was famous for his great wealth. Somebody said to be rich as Croesus is being described as extremely wealthy. Bill Gates is as rich as Croesus!
  • Sell down the river: During the early- to mid- 19th century in the American South, slaves were transported down the Mississippi River for sale to plantations where the work was harder. To sell another person down the river is to betray him or her for one’s own benefit. The CEO sold his employees down the river by cutting their benefits while raising his own salary. 
  • Shanghai: to cheat or steal, to make drugs, liquor, etc.. to bring or get by trickery or force; a seaport in East China, from Shanghai because sailor for voyages there were often secured by illicit means
  • Spartan: frugal and bare, simple, disciplined and stern and brave; having to do with Sparta, an important City in Greece. The Spartans were known for simplicity of life, severity, courage, and brevity of speech.
  • Stonewall: hinder or obstruct by evasive, delaying tactics; in cricket: trying to go completely defensive, blocking every ball without trying to score; relating to Stonewall Jackson (Thomas J. Jackson) Confederate
  • Swiftian: satirical,; from Jonathan Swift’s famous satire on politics Gulliver’s Travels
  • Sybaritic: The Greek city of Sybaris was founded in 820 B.C. and destroyed in 510 B.C. Along the way, it was inhabited by wealthy people, who were reputed to live in luxurious self-indulgence. Accordingly, a sybarite is somebody devoted to luxury and pleasure, and sybaritic is the adjectival form. The sybaritic banquet included four kinds of caviar, foie gras, and a $5,000 bottle of wine with each course. 
  • The burning of Rome: It is believed that the Roman emperor Nero displayed indifference during the 64 A.D. Great Fire that consumed much of Rome, even to the extent of fiddling merrily. As it happens, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and it’s uncertain how Nero reacted, but such concerns have no effect on popular usage. To fiddle while Rome burns is to waste time on unimportant or self-indulgent matters during a time of crisis. The city has its highest unemployment rate in decades, while the mayor attends upscale parties; she’s fiddling while Rome burns. 
  • Thespian: having to do with the theater or acting; relating to Thespians, so called form Thespis, a Attic poet of the 6th century B.C., reputed to the father of Greek tragedy.
  • Wagnerian: style of music: loud, dramatic, radical; having to do with Wagner, his music, or his musical styles or theories.
  • Waterloo: The 1815 Battle of Waterloo was the final military action of French emperor Napoleon, in his last attempt to keep power. His troops were crushed by a coalition of European forces, forcing him to abdicate and accept exile for the second—and final—time. Waterloo has become a term referring to a decisive, crushing defeat of any sort. 
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist