What Is an Antonomasia?

Antonomasia is a literary device where a descriptive phrase replaces a person's name, often highlighting a defining characteristic. Think "The Great Emancipator" for Abraham Lincoln. It's a powerful tool that can immortalize individuals, turning mere names into legends. How does this figure of speech shape our perception of history and culture? Join us as we uncover its impact.
A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

Antonomasia is the use of a substitution or phrase for a proper noun, usually substituting for the name of an individual. Although some might think that the word refers to an opposite substitution, because of the more popular and familiar term antonym, antonomasia replaces a name, which is neutral in terms of meaning, with a phrase that describes the individual.

In many classical cases of antonomasia, the substituting phrase that is used is considered to be archetypal. What this means is that the phrase that is used not only sums up the overall identity of the individual, but casts that individual as the prime example of the phrase that is used. For example, in a land with only one king, speakers may refer to this individual, who will of course have a given name, simply as “the King.” This is in the sample of archetypal antonomasia, where the person being referenced is the archetypal King, meaning that the individual is the best example of a king that can be found in the speaker’s realm of reference.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Not all archetypal uses of this language technique are restricted to describing someone who holds a title exclusively. Another common example is often given for this technique is the phrase “the philosopher,” which is used in many different cases and cultures to refer to a primary philosopher in that culture. The use of antonomasia puts the individual being referenced on a pedestal as the ultimate example of their role within the society. This is true to using other titles like “the teacher,” “the maestro,” or “the sage” in the same way.

Other uses of this language technique are not meant to propel the individual who’s being referenced to in archetypal status, but are often slightly deprecatory,, or even sarcastic in nature. One common example is when English speakers refer to “the dictator,” or, in a similar phrase, “the little dictator.” This kind of substituting phrase is often used by a speaker to refer to someone above him or her in a hierarchy, such as a boss. In other cases, the same phrase is used for a child who is acting aggressively, or perhaps manipulating his siblings or parents. In the first case, the use of the word “little” serves as a subtle insult to the person being mentioned, where in the second case, the word “little” often signifies that the speaker is talking about a child as opposed to an adult.

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Discussion Comments


I've read a lot of fiction books set back in medieval times. The characters always said simply, “the King,” instead of saying “King So-and-So.”

Everyone kind of quaked with fear when the King was mentioned. There was no need of using his last or first name, because his identity was unmistakable.

Back in the days when there were no vehicles and everyone traveled by horse or by walking, you rarely heard anyone mention a king other than their own, anyway. The places where other kings ruled were too far away to cause any confusion over which king they were talking about.


I work for an art museum, and whenever we have a famous artist coming to have an exhibit and a reception, our boss tells us to respectfully refer to him or her as “The Artist.” We make a big deal out of it, and it all seems a bit pompous to me.

At the reception, when one of us introduces him or her, we start with, “May I present to you The Artist...” and then we say their name. It all feels a bit fake, but it is required of me, so I do it.

I don't think that we should exalt people so much. Why can't we just use their actual names instead of giving them lofty titles?


@feasting – That would be pretty humiliating! I tend to save antonomasia for people I know well, so I don't think I'm in danger of forgetting their real names.

My sister's son was such a terrible child when he was a toddler that we began calling him “The Terror.” Even my sister was okay with this, because she knew how out of control he was.

Luckily, he grew out of this phase. Now, it is more of a nostalgic nickname. Every now and then we will refer to him as The Terror, and he just smiles, because he barely remembers those days, but he has heard stories.


My coworkers and I had a name for the pretty girl in the office who always got what she wanted. We called her “The Princess.”

She didn't know about this name, because none of us were her friends, and she would have been offended if we had used it when she was around. We just found it more satisfying to refer to her as The Princess when talking about her than to use her name, because it allowed us to let off a little steam about the unfairness in the office.

We called her this so much that I actually forgot her name one time. I was about to introduce her to a client, and I drew a total blank. That was a bit embarrassing, and it is one of the possible consequences of antonomasia!

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books