Is there a specific term for this type of figure of speech?
July 27, 2018 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes a central element or character from a story becomes a figure of speech that is used as a shorthand to describe similar things and situations. Examples of this include ugly duckling, Gordian knot, Achilles heel, and Trojan horse. When you use one of these phrases to describe something, they bring along with them the full story that they come from. All the examples I can think of are noun phrases, though there may be some that aren't. What are these called? The closest term I've found is metonym, but is there something more specific?

I would also be interested in more examples of such terms.
posted by Winnie the Proust to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not exactly what you're looking for but the words "allusion" and "shorthand" might be useful.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:09 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

The last three are eponyms.
posted by bricoleur at 12:13 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:42 PM on July 27, 2018

posted by clavicle at 12:46 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
posted by zamboni at 12:46 PM on July 27, 2018 [13 favorites]

Literary or historic synecdoches, in which the named part refers to the whole story? Not perfect, but it might work.

A decent example: John Hancock, though it's been simplified from "lavish signature to taunt or challenge" to "signature."
Less clear examples: Rube Goldberg (US) or Heath Robinson (UK) contraption or plan.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:10 PM on July 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

zamboni - I clicked through to reference Darmok also! I feel like it's the definitive discussion of this concept for a whole bunch of people.

Maybe the terminology might be found in semiotics? Signs and signifiers, etc?
posted by DSime at 1:26 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Idiom is a more generic way of referring to this I believe, though you can have have idioms of the types mentioned above. Basically, any reference that is cultural, not literal. This page gives at least one example from your list.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 1:30 PM on July 27, 2018

Here's a page on allusion, using some of the same examples you do.
posted by ManInSuit at 2:13 PM on July 27, 2018

Ponzi scheme?
posted by Emmy Rae at 2:39 PM on July 27, 2018

I feel like allusion is actually exactly what you're referring to. The shorthand phrase alludes to an entire history/story.
posted by drlith at 6:26 PM on July 27, 2018

I decided to see whether “etymological allusion” is a phrase in use. It is, but I can’t find a definition for it. I did find this use of it, which makes it seem like a possibility for what you’re talking about. I think allusion is the general term, but I was hoping for something more specific. This is a great question, and I’m really hoping there’s a better answer.
posted by FencingGal at 8:06 PM on July 27, 2018

I can't name it, but you describe it beautifully. Sword of Damocles is an example.
posted by AgentRocket at 8:49 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Procrustean bed would be another example.
posted by FencingGal at 7:23 AM on July 28, 2018

Hobson’s choice
White whale
Pandora’s box
Tilting at windmills
Goldilocks zone
posted by overeducated_alligator at 12:57 PM on July 28, 2018

Response by poster: Country Mouse
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:13 AM on July 29, 2018

Response by poster: Scarlet Letter
Paschal Lamb
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:06 AM on July 31, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions and examples!

I agree that this is a form of allusion, and is an example of synecdoche. They are also idioms, metonyms, symbols, and emblems. But each of those terms covers a larger linguistic category, of which this is one particular type: where an object or person from a story becomes an idiom that can be used to describe things that are in a similar situation. There doesn't seem to be a term for that particular case. Interesting.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:12 AM on July 31, 2018

Response by poster: I'm going to mark this resolved, but please feel free to keep commenting if you have any thoughts or examples.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:13 AM on July 31, 2018

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