First, are you eponymous?
No, that's not an insult or some kids' joke along the lines of: Your epidermis is showing. It can be cool to be an eponym. A lot of us live in an eponymously named city, Washington, D.C.
Eponymous has become a very hot word in the last decade. On the Lexis-Nexis database, only 92 articles using the word eponymous were recorded in 1985 and 109 in 1986. The number jumped to 335 in 1989, and 672 in 1991. For every year since then, there have been more than 1,000 articles. And, get this: In a single month this year, ending in late April, 325 articles using eponymous were recorded. While the people at Lexis-Nexis tell me some of this growth is inflated -- Lexis-Nexis's database is bigger now than it used to be -- the trend is obvious.
So what does eponymous mean? An eponym, according to the American Heritage dictionary, is "a real or mythical person whose name is, or is thought to be, the source of the name of a city, country, era, institution or the like." It can also be "a real or fictitious person whose name has become synonymous with an era, event, object, practice or the like." If someone has become eponymous, his or her name has been given to something.
Eponymous -- however loosely used -- is huge among music reviewers, because, as Tim Bannon, entertainment editor at the Chicago Tribune, notes, "so many albums are named after the bands." Like Bob Dylan's 1962 album, "Bob Dylan." Ditto jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut's 1998 album, "Cyrus Chestnut."
"I've always disliked that word," Mr. Bannon says. "It seems somehow pretentious or inappropriate for pop music stories. I've changed it to `self-titled,' which is clunky, too." An arts editor friend of mine says she once issued an outright ban on music writers using the word because it had become so overused.
At least one rock group, R.E.M., had fun with the word. It named its 1988 album "Eponymous." And thus a theory: If you look at those numbers above, use of the word clearly began taking off after R.E.M.'s apparent little poke at its own industry and the reviewers. Could R.E.M. have started this trend?
Christopher John Farley, a senior writer at Time who frequently analyzes rock, is skeptical, if only because the album in question was not a "monster" album, but rather an archival collection. On the other hand, R.E.M. is an admired and influential band among critics, he says, and might have had the power to set off a linguistic revolution with even a minor work. "I'd rather have R.E.M. influencing the language than Britney Spears," he says.
The trouble here is that even if eponymous has its place in music criticism, it has metastasized to the point where it is used in articles from Scotland to Singapore. An article in this month's Fortune refers to "an eponymous e-mail box," while the April 21 Entertainment Weekly calls television's Roseanne the "eponymous `domestic goddess.' "
Phoenix New Times on April 12 refers to a place called "Schreiner's Fine Sausages" as "Phoenix's eponymous shrine to fine sausages," since it's named after "German sausage scion Hugo Schreiner." And in the New York Times April 9 edition, Patrick McGeehan writes of Trump Plaza, Trump Marina, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Indiana, Trump Tower and Trump International as "Donald Trump's empire of eponymous structures."
David Dreyer, a PR consultant based in Washington, suggests it's not that surprising that this word has taken off, given baby boomer sensibilities. "It's inherently a smart-alecky thing to say, and that goes to the essence of the boomer ethos," he says. "It invites a sense of irony or sarcasm." Used cleverly, he insists, it can be "an insult framed as an intellectual insight."
Since Mr. Dreyer has spent a lot of time toweling off politicians after they have gotten themselves into hot water, you might argue that he is an eponym, too, because his name is pronounced like the household laundry appliance.
Having just succumbed to the temptation of using this word, I owe "poor little eponymous," as Newsweek senior editor and drama critic Jack Kroll calls it, a defense. Here is his:
"Increasingly in these postmodern days, we feel guilty about using certain words because some have class overtones. Obviously, it's a word you won't find hip-hoppers using or the teen culture using. It's used by a certain class of people. But the work that it does is done by no other word in the English language. If you don't use that word, you have to find some circumlocutory way of saying the same thing. You realize it's a useful word the way synonymous or anonymous are useful."
Suddenly, I realize my acrimonious attitude toward eponymous is scandalous. For penance, I will write a cartoon screenplay, the eponymously titled "Poor Little Eponymous," and I promise to make him warm, fuzzy and unpretentious.
What's the word? If you have suggestions or other ideas, write to Chatter, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail email@example.com.
Include your name, address and telephone number. E.J. Dionne will credit contributions he uses.