Core Knowledge Quiz: Characters Who Became Synonyms

by Robert Pondiscio
January 3rd, 2010

A recent Wall Street Journal blog post about irritable American Idol judge Simon Cowell states that he is “no great pop music Svengali.”   The word “Svengali” comes from a character in a book that almost no one reads anymore, George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Trilby.  It’s a good example of a character that becomes synonymous with his or her traits–in Svengali’s case someone who manipulates another person, usually with ill-intent.  Any person who demonstrates a high degree of influence over others is now commonly described as a Svengali, including Karl Rove, NFL coach Bill Belichick, and Tiger Woods’ father, Earl.

Like Svengali, many character names from literature have entered the language as words to describe a person’s behavior or traits.  How many of the following can you indentify?

  1.  If you can always find something to be happy about, no matter how grim the circumstances, you are like the title character in Eleanor H. Porter’s children’s classic.
  2. A joyless miser is often described as which character from Dickens?
  3. From a James Thurber short story comes this name for a person with a rich, vivid fantasy life. 
  4. This real-life British dandy has been widely fictionalized in plays and movies.  His name is now synonymous with being well-dressed.  
  5. The word “quixotic” comes from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  So does this name referring to a handsome seducer. 
  6. The title character of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel entered the language as a synonym for a narrow-minded conformist. 
  7. If you make money easily, you might be said to have a “touch” similar to this mythical king. 
  8. A thing of enormous size or power might be described as “gargantuan,” “goliath,” “titanic,” or “colossal.”  Which of these four words does not come from a character in literature?  
  9. This term for vanity, egotism or selfishness comes from the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. 
  10. Which character from Voltaire’s Candide has become synonymous with foolish optimism?

Answers and scoring below.  Read the rest of this entry »