A Huge List of Famous Allusions

Many of the words we use today are actually allusions to historical figures and Greek Gods. Here are just a few examples:

Greek

  • Achilles’ heel –weakness a person may have. Achilles was invulnerable except for his heel (achilles tendon).
  • Adonis – handsome younger man; Aphrodite loved him.
  • Apollo – a physically perfect male; God of music and light; known for his physical beauty
  • Cassandra – a person who continually predicts misfortune but often is not believed; from Greece
  • Erotic – of or having to do with sexual passion or love; Greek god of love, Eros
  • Harpy – a predatory person or nagging woman; from harpy, a foul creature that was part woman, part bird
  • Helen symbol of a beautiful woman; from Helen of Troy.
  • Morphine – alkaloid used to relieve pain and induce sleep; Morpheus was a god that could easily change shape
  • Muse – some creature of inspiration; the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, divine singers that presided over thought in all its forms
  • Narcissism – being in love with our own self-image; named for Narcissus, a handsome young man who despised love but fell in love with himself instead.
  • Odyssey – a long journey; named for Odysseus, the character in The Odyssey, by Homer. Odysseus makes his long journey back from the Trojan War.
  • Pandora’s Box – Something that opens the door for bad occurrences, opened by someone known for curiosity; named for Pandora who opened a box of human ills.
  • Phoenix – a symbol of immortality or rebirth; named after a long bird that consumed itself in fire, rising renewed from the flame to start another long life.
  • Psyche – the human soul, self, the mind; named after Psyche, a maiden who, after undergoing many hardships reunited with her love.
  • Pygmalion – someone who tries to fashion someone into the person he desires; from a myth adapted into a play by George Bernard Shaw.
  • Sibyl – a witch or sorceress; a priestess who had the gift of prophecy.
  • Tantalize– from King Tantalus, who reigned on Mt. Sipylus and was condemned to a river but couldn’t eat the beautiful food around him.
  • Titanic – grand and enormous; after Tityus, the son of Zeus and Elara whose body covered nearly two acres.
  • Volcanoes – originated from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

Literature

  • Babbitt – a self-satisfied person concerned chiefly with business and middle-class ideals like material success; from Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
  • Cinderella – one who gains affluence or recognition after being treated poorly.
  • Don Juan – a libertine, profligate, a man obsessed with women.
  • Don Quixote – someone overly idealistic to the point of being unrealistic. From the Cervantes story and The Man of La Mancha.
  • Frankenstein – Anything that threatens or destroys its creator; from Mary Shelley’s novel.
  • Jekyll and Hyde – A capricious person with two sides to his personality. From the novel of the same name.
  • Lothario – used to describe a man who seduces women; from The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe.
  • Scrooge – a bitter and/or greedy person; from Charles DickensA Christmas Carol.
  • Svengali – a person with an irresistible hypnotic power; from 1984 by George Mauriers.

Biblical Allusions

  • Absolom – a son who brings heartache to his father.
  • Alpha and Omega – The beginning and the end, from a quote in Revelations
  • Daniel – one known for wisdom and accurate judgment.
  • David and Bathsheba – represents a big sin; from King David’s affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
  • Eye of the Needle – A very difficult task; from famous narrow gateway called “the needle.”
  • Goliath – a large person; from the giant from the Philistine city of Gath, slain by David.
  • Ishmael – one who is cast out as being unworthy.
  • Job– who who suffers a great deal but remains faithful.
  • Jonah – one who brings bad luck.
  • Judas – a traitor
  • Original Sin– the idea that all men are innately sinful as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall.
  • Prodigal Son – a wasteful son who disappoints his father.
  • Samson and Delilah – Treacherous love story.
  • Scapegoat – one that is made an object of blame for others
  • Solomon – an extremely wise person.

Historical Allusions

  • Attila – barbarian, rough leader; King of the Huns from 433-453.
  • Berserk – destructively or frenetically violent, from mental upset.
  • Boycott – to act together in abstaining from using a specific item. From Charles C. Boycott who refused to charge lower rents and his staff boycotted.
  • Canopy – an overhanging protection or shelter, to cover.
  • Casanova – a man who is amorous to women; based on the Italian adventurer.
  • Chauvinist – one who has a militant devotion to and glorification to country or gender; Nicolas Chauvin.
  • El Dorado – a place of reputed wealth; from the legendary city in South America.
  • Machiavellian – characterized by expedience, deceit and cunning; after Niccolo Machiavelli.
  • McCarthyism – modern witch hunt, the practice of publicizing accusations without evidence; after Joseph McCarthy.
  • Nostradamus – fortune teller; (1503-66) French physician and astrologer who wrote a book of rhymed prophecies.
  • Stonewall – hinder or obstruct by evasive, delaying tactics from Stonewall Jackson.
  • Thespian – having to do with the theater or acting; from Thespis, an attic poet and father of Greek tragedy.
  • Uncle Sam – government of people of the United States; derived from Uncle Sam, a business man in the 1900s.

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