Names That Fly
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Do you have an Achilles’ heel or keep up with the Joneses? We all use idioms with proper names. Where do they come from? How do they spread globally?
Do you know what was so special about Achilles’ heel or why Caesar asked Brutus his famous question—“Et tu, Brute?” (And you, Brutus?). Or, for that matter, what is so silly about Willy, and who are the Joneses we are supposed to keep up with?
These groups of words are called idioms and even if we no longer remember their history, we usually know what they mean. Such idioms are called “winged words”* because they are said to “fly” from one person to another until they are commonly used in a culture. Once “winged,” many idioms spread to cultures around the world. With time, however, the histories of winged words become less evident and sometimes it is difficult to detect their origins.
If an idiom (winged words) contains a proper noun,** we often can discover a wealth of information about it. What is its country of origin? Is it a specific story, an historic fact, an ancient myth, an amusing fable or a geographical discovery? The idioms above are such examples, as are Typhoid Mary, the wisdom of Solomon, a Trojan Horse, Pandora’s box, and a Gordian knot. Do you know what these mean?
By analogy with winged words, we will call proper nouns that comprise idiomatic expressions “winged names.”
One question this investigation seeks to answer is how often does this phenomenon occur. Another interesting query is whether the names of mythological Greek heroes have since become universal and are used today in every language. Still another inquiry examines which world cultures created the most winged names. And, ultimately, after we find all these answers, we will see how the processes of globalization are reflected in language.
Our investigation is conducted at the intersection of several fields: phraseology, onomastics (study of proper nouns), cultural studies, literary criticism, and history. Additionally, our study will be valuable to translators and interpreters.
* Winged words are words/phrases that were first uttered or written in a specific literary context and have since passed into common usage to express a general idea.
** Proper nouns are names that specify individual persons, places, or organizations and are spelled with initial capital letters. Examples are Boris, Canada, and the Boston Red Sox.