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Can a name of a person (usually from stories, or history) be used to describe a group of people? For example, can Cinderella be used to refer to girls who are poor and have difficulties in life, but who are then lucky to marry a wonderful husband?

Also, are there any more examples like this in the American culture?

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Then there is a Marxist – GEdgar Jul 26 '11 at 14:36

5 Answers 5

A fictional character can be recognised as an archetype and the name of the character comes to represent the set of people who exhibit its principal features. An example of this is Polyanna, the eternal optimist who always sees the positive in things.

The novel's success brought the term "Pollyanna" (along with the adjective "pollyannaish" and the noun "Pollyannaism") into the language to describe someone who seems always to be able to find something to be "glad" about no matter what circumstances arise. It is sometimes used pejoratively, referring to someone whose optimism is excessive to the point of naïveté or refusing to accept the facts of an unfortunate situation.

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I'll say it is valid to do so.

You can use this as an adjective or a common noun - but you need to be sure whether those who hear you or read this understand what you mean by Cinderella.

If you say "She's a Cinderella", then it means "fairy-tale" ending but I could also say "Cinderella (curfew)" to mean she has to be home by midnight. Another example would be Romeo, it could mean a guy besotted in love but does it also imply a tragic ending?

I can find a valid i.e. dictionary example with the word shylock which is a Shakespearean character and has the derived meaning "A ruthless moneylender; a loan shark" from the character (though it can have unintended negative connotations).

I also see sherlock can be used as a term for private detectives.

Other examples could be calling someone a Barbie(warning: it's trademarked) instead of dumb blonde or a JLo (I'll leave you to work it out)

Of course there are eponyms which is where the name of a person i.e. a proper noun has become the name of a product or place or thing. Words such as atlas, Victorian (era), Alzheimer's (disease) , Atkins (diet), Oedipus (complex) but I don't think that's the usage you're looking for.

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Good examples, probably worth mentioning that one needs to be careful with unintended connotations. Some consider shylock's character to be a somewhat anti-semitic caricaturisation, and so I would be careful about using this one. Many such characters have wider connotations than may be found in a brief dictionary definition. – Tom Jul 26 '11 at 12:05
@Tom: I was completely unaware of that aspect of shylock. Thanks for highlighting – JoseK Jul 26 '11 at 12:07
I think it is a matter of debate - but perhaps a somewhat uncomfortable debate to get into if you enter it unwittingly. – Tom Jul 26 '11 at 12:12
In many of your examples, there's a popular, accepted meaning of the name. Not all attributes of the character from the story necessarily apply. Like if you call someone a "romeo", you are routinely understood to mean that he is romantic, perhaps obsessed with love, but few would understand you to mean that he is Italian, a member of a rich family, or doomed to die an early death. – Jay Jun 25 at 20:54

Can a person's name be used to represent a group of people?

Not quite from the stories, but sometimes the first name can be used generically to refer to anyone ('average Joe') or stereotypes for ethnicity (for example Ivan for a Russian).

Another clear example of fictional name becoming common word is Lolita:

a precociously seductive girl

from Lolita, character in the novel Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

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Mostly ditto JoseK's answer.

Let me just add: Many real people's names are used this way also. In the U.S., anyway, calling someone "an Einstein" means that he is very intelligent, especially in math or science. Calling someone "Benedict Arnold" means he's a traitor, often used to refer to personal betrayal as opposed to betraying his nation. "Victorian" means very proper or prudish. Etc.

The exact usage varies. For example, if a girl had a hard life but than marries well, people will say, "That was a Cinderella story", but they rarely say, "She is a Cinderella." On the other hand a man who is romantic may be called "a Romeo", but people rarely say "he lived a Romeo story". They might say "it was a Romeo and Juliet story". Etc.

Whether you can get away with making up your own such archetype depends on how well known the story is and how clear-cut the character is. If you referred to someone as "a Darth Vader", with a little context I'm sure people would know what you meant. But if you picked a character from a book that is not widely known and started saying that someone was "a Herbert Fromm" or some such (a name I just made up), of course no one will have any idea what you mean. I'm sure there are characters well known in certain communities and not others. Like if you talked about "a Dominic Flandry" to a group of science fiction fans, many would recognize the character from Poul Anderson's books. But to most it would surely be a highly obscure reference. Etc.

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A "Mary Sue" is a fictional character that fulfills the personal wishes of the author:

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