Gargantua and Friends

Eponym is the term for a word derived from a surname – say, mesmerize, taken from Dr. Franz Mesmer (1734–1815), a pioneering hypnotist, or Orwellian, suggestive of the big-brother authoritarianism that often figures large in novels by George Orwell (1903–1950). Other eponyms are based on fictional characters from literature or mythology – for one, narcissism, from the Greek god Narcissus, who loved nothing better than gazing at his reflection in a pool of springwater.

Less well known are four make-believe counterparts who date from the days of Ancient Greece to the Renaissance. The four words below were derived from characters in a sixteenth-century part work; an epic poem; and two Greek myths.

gargantuan (adj.) tremendous in size, volume, or degree. First recorded use, 1596

This word comes from Gargantua, the creation of François Rabelais (1494–1553), the French physician, humanist, satirist, and fantasist. Rabelais’s seminal opus was Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds, and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel, written between 1532 and c.1550.* Both Gargantua and his son (the focus of four of the volumes) were so huge they made Gulliver, a successor born in 1726 in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travelers, seem almost Lilliputian.

Just how gargantuan was Gargantua? So much so that  “…every shirt of his [took up] eleven hundred ells [arm-lengths] and a third of white broadcloth.” And how Rabelaisian (“marked by gross humor, extravagance, caricature, or bold naturalism”) was his creator Rabelais? Enough for this creative force to have joined the ranks of authors whose names became eponyms.

*The first two volumes were published under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais.

rodomontade (n.) blustery or bragging speech; a rant. First recorded use, 1612

King Arthur, Charlemagne, and other key figures of medieval epics were generally vital to the destiny of a kingdom or nation or religion. A major character in an Italian epic published in two parts was Rodomonte, the Saracen (Muslim) king of Sarza and Algiers. Rodomonte was known as much for his arrogance, vanity, and boastfulness as for his valor when warring against Charlemagne’s Christian paladins (trusted military leaders) – hence his bequest to our language: rodomontade. While this little-used word is most often thought of as a synonym for braggadocio, it is also personified to mean braggart.

The epics Rodomonte blustered his way through? First, Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love), published by the Italian poet Matteomaria Boiardo in 1487 and centered around the doomed love affair between the knight Orlando and Angelica, a princess from Cathay. The poem remained unfinished until 1532, when Ludovico Ariosto extended the story in what is considered the greatest of Italian romantic epics: Orlando Furioso (Frenzied Orlando).

Sisyphean (adj.) Applied to an endless or futile labor or task. First recorded use, 1635

Sisyphus, king of Corinth, was a crafty knave known for tricking the gods. He is remembered for his punishment in the underworld after baiting Zeus & Company one too many times: He had to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it slip from his grasp and roll down to the bottom: Push and repeat, push and repeat, for all eternity – an impossible task that became a metaphor for futility in philosophy and literature alike.* (Please note: Sisyphus’s machinations and transgressions, and various versions thereof, are so convoluted I beg to wimp out and leave you to your own devices,starting here.)

That the adjective Sisyphus gave us remains capitalized in dictionaries raises a question: Does its infrequent use explain the cap? Perhaps so. Two younger (and more common) eponymic equivalents are lower-cased: quixotic (from the Cervantes novel Don Quixote), which dates from c.1720, and oedipal (from the Oedipus complex), dating from  the 1930s.

*Budding existentialists took to The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays, written by Albert Camus in 1940 and published in 1955.

tantalize (v.) To tease or torment, as if by presenting something desirable to the view but keeping it continually out of reach. First known use, 1597

Tantalus, the rich king of Sipylos, was a son of Zeus, and one version of his life story has him crossing his father by stealing ambrosia and nectar from Zeus’s table in Olympus to share with his subjects back home. Upset by Zeus’s angry reprimand, Tantalus cut his own son Periops into tiny little pieces and served him as a stew at a banquet he threw for the gods.

As he had with Sisyphus, Zeus exacted his revenge. He banished Tantalus to the underground, where for eternity the creative cook would stand knee-deep in a pool of water with fruit-laden branches above. When he stooped for a drink, the water receded; when he reached for fruit, the wind blew the branch out his reach. Over time the word tantalize came into common usage as a verb, and two and a half millennia later Merriam-Webster defines it as above. Note: Don’t make the mistake of thinking tantalize is interchangeable with thrill or exciteit carries a pejorative connotation lacking in both.

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