Literary Allusions

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
  • Boswell: James Boswell (1740–95) is best known for his 1791 book The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., considered by many to be the greatest English-language biography ever written. His name is now applied to any devoted biographer. In one story, Sherlock Holmes refers to Watson as his Boswell.
  • Lolita: In Vladamir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, the adult narrator is infatuated by the 12-year-old title character. While the original Lolita was described as a rather plain child who was unfortunate in becoming an object of obsession, the name has become a term for a sexually precocious adolescent girl. The tabloids called Amy Fisher the “Long Island Lolita.”
  • Milquetoast: The Timid Soul, a one-panel newspaper comic by H.T. Webster, made its first appearance in the New York World in 1924. Its main character was a timid, soft-spoken, easily dominated man named Caspar Milquetoast. His name has come to be used for anybody who's a complete wimp. His neighbor borrowed all his tools months ago, but that milquetoast is too timid to ask for them back.
  • Oedipus complex: In Greek legend—notably dramatized in Oedipus Rex, by the Greek playwright Sophocles—Oedipus unwittingly carries out his destiny of killing his father and marrying his mother. Sigmund Freud coined the term “Oedipus complex,” referring to a stage in which someone is attracted to their parent of the opposite sex, and sees their parent of the same sex as a rival. (Usually, it refers to a son's desire toward his mother; a daughter's attraction to her father is sometimes called an Electra complex.) The movie featured a mama's boy with an Oedipus complex who sought revenge on his no-good father.
  • Peter Pan: Peter Pan, the protagonist of a 1904 play and 1911 book by J. M. Barrie, is famously a boy who refused to ever grow up. These days, an adult who acts immaturely is sometimes said to be suffering from “Peter Pan syndrome.” Let him fix his own cocoa; you don't need to indulge his Peter Pan syndrome by mothering him.
  • Pollyanna: The title character of Pollyanna, a 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter, was a poor girl faced with difficult obstacles who nevertheless managed to stay relentlessly upbeat. While the original Pollyanna was well aware of her challenges but chose to play the “Glad Game” of finding the silver lining in every dark cloud, the name is now applied to somebody who is blindly optimistic, or overly upbeat out of naïveté. “She's such a Pollyanna,” grumbled Mary Anne, “she thinks the IRS auditor is calling to make sure they don't owe her any money.”
  • Svengali: Trilby, a 1894 novel by George Du Maurier, features a hypnotist named Svengali who dominates the title character while making her a musical star. Somebody who controls somebody else's career for his own ends is now called a Svengali. Some felt that the Svengali behind the reality TV show locked the winner into an unfairly restrictive contract.

See also: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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