A Bill Clinton type (English grammar question)

Is there a name for the following type of English expression (often used in sports or politics), using the indefinite article in front of the proper name of a person of note:

“The Democrats will never win unless they have a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan…”

“To win in this league you have to have a Drew Brees on your team…”

And is this thing a relatively recent phenomenon, in terms of prominence? It seems to me, from memory, that it wasn’t common in the 80s and 90s.

Searching Google Books for “an Attila” (I picked that at random), I got James Boswell’s “An Account of Corsica” from 1768:

I’m not sure how you’d test to see if it’s more prominent now than before, however.

Yes, more common now A days, but the technique predates the 1980’s and 90’s.

Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

I don’t think it is at all new and I’ve been around for going on 80 years.

Not “all” new, but how do you feel it’s related in your lifetime? (More/less, Etc.?)

The figure of speech goes back to at least Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock hails Portia (in her disguise as a lawyer) as “A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!”

No idea what the figure of speech is called, I’m afraid, beyond noting the obvious; it’s a subspecies of metaphor.

“He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”

Benjamin Harvey Hill, on Robert E. Lee, 1874

Would this be an eponym?

No, not as typically defined. That would be something like Clintonian or Nixonian politics.

It’s called commonization:

Granted, this is a very particular way of doing it, because the name is still capitalized, but still, that’s effectively what’s going on here.

Attila was leader of the Huns, however, and the Lombard king was named Liutprand, so it’s quite possible James Boswell isn’t the kind of authority you want to appeal to.

Earliest usage? Does it count if the construction uses “no” (e.g. “no Arthur”) instead of “a”? One of the earliest known references to the legendary Brittonic warrior has that form:

(The clause is usually rendered as “although he was no Arthur,” but the Echard translation I found just now renders it as “not Arthur.” :eek: I fixed it back. :stuck_out_tongue: )

Y Gododdin is a text in Welsh, and Welsh (like I think all the Celtic languages) lacks an indefinite article, so the construction mentioned in the OP can’t exist in a Welsh text. An early example of the construction might be found in an early translation of the text into English (if there exists and early translation, and if it employs the construction).

Thanks for all the great responses! Does everyone agree with guizot that this is a commonization?

I’m not sure I do. With commonization, the meaning of the word changes. Commonised “mercury” does not refer to Mercury. Almost any person can be described as “quixotic” except Don Quixote. And most boycottings do not involve Captain Boycott.

Whereas in a phrase like “a Daniel come to judgment!” the word “Daniel” does indeed refer to Daniel. It’s still a proper noun; it has not been turned into a common noun; it has not been commonized.

I’m still going with “particular case of metaphor”.

Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano (you may know him from such films as Risky Business, The Sopranos, Memento and The Matrix) said that most actors have a four-step Hollywood career:

Who’s Joey Pants?
Get me Joey Pants!
Get me a younger Joey Pants.
Who’s Joey Pants?


Commonization is about creating a dictionary word from a name…

We all know what a silhouette is …“The word silhouette is a commonization of the name of Etienne de Silhouette, finance minister under Louis XIV, who decorated the walls of his château at Bry-sur-Marne with paper cut-outs.”

And the capitalized name gives us a clue that its still the name meaning the person… which in the absurd case must be metaphore.

Commonization is how dictionary words come from names but here we aren’t being told to remember the name for the future, instead , we are being asked to find someone who matches a lot of things about the person “Clinton”.

When told “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon a stormy sea” we aren’t being told that Newtons theories are wrong. We are being asked to remember or imagine how the movement of clouds in a storm could match up with the moon and make the moon seem to sail, float, even move (due to illusion), on the clouds.
The OP’s use of names is metaphore, we are not being told that a future president in the future will be called Clinton or win because of a team member who will be named Clinton or have a position entitled "The Clinton of the USA ". rather we are being asked to think about another candidate with similar characteristics, such as speech making ability, sensitivity and social conscience. … “The Clinton” doesn’t get written down in formal lists as “Lists of Payments to Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretary of State and the Clinton”… its only if it could be used literally like that could it be commonization.
It is in grammar metaphore…

Well “a Clinton” doesn’t mean we choose Bill or Hillary, so we are even told it doesn’t meet the grammar of a literal meaning, so its a contraction of “a person like Clinton” .
Seems there’s shades of expressions between simile and metaphore.

Yes, I agree that semantically it is different from commonalization. Grammatically, though, it is still a kind of commonalization in that it can take an indefinite article (which was the OPs initial observation).

What you are describing above (and I agree with the description), however, is not metaphor (and metaphor has little to do with grammar anyway), but rather a kind of metonymy. I agree that for this reason it is different from–and more than–typical commonalization, but grammatically, it is de facto commonalization by the very use of the indefinite article itself.

It is unclear whether the OP is concerned with the actual grammar or with the rhetorical function of this figure of speech–but to reiterate: neither metonymy nor metaphor is a grammatical issue.

I think this would generally be regarded as a form of synecdoche, which is the use of a specific term or proper name to denote a larger class of things or characteristics. It is specifically the form of synecdoche where “a specific class name is used to refer to a general set of associated things”. It’s a special case of the metonym which is the general term for using a word related in meaning to denote an entity, such as “Washington” to mean “the US federal government”, however the synecdoche is more specific and includes a variant that covers usage like “he was an Einstein in that physics class”.

I agree that the examples cited are not commonization, which as already stated involves the creation of a new common word from a proper noun. A relatively recent example is from World War II, where Vidkun Quisling’s collaboration with the Nazis in Norway gave the language the commonization “quisling” for a traitorous collaborator with the enemy. But synecdoche and commonization are quite different things.