Joe Miller

Joe Miller

In Brief

Figure of speech. When Lenehan ends his limerick "I can't see the Joe Miller. Can you?" he means that he can't see the joke, since Joe Miller was a comedian. This exemplifies the rhetorical principle of antonomasia: substituting a property for a proper name, or vice versa.

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Antonomasia (AN-toh-noh-MAH-see-uh, AN-tuh-noh-MAH-zhuh, and similar pronunciations, from anti- = instead of + onomazein = to name) is substitute naming. One form consists in giving nicknames to people based on their nature, appearance, occupation, or other properties: Shakespeare is the Bard, Margaret Thatcher is the Iron Lady, Ronald Reagan is the Gipper, Abraham Lincoln is the Great Emancipator, Bruce Springsteen is the Boss, Napoleon is the Little Corporal, Frank Sinatra is Old Blue Eyes, Maria Callas is La Divina, and Elizabeth Warren is Pocahantas. The trick works also for groups, fictional characters, works of art, places: the Beatles are the Fab Four, Batman is the Dark Knight, Harry Potter is The Boy Who Lived, Macbeth is the Scottish Play, Beethoven's Third is the Eroica, Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, Rome is the Eternal City, Edinburth is Auld Reekie, and Los Angeles is La La Land.

The principle can also operate in reverse: a miser is a Scrooge, a ladies' man is a Casanova or Don Juan, a lover is a Romeo, and a traitor is Judas. Gideon Burton ( cites a classical example: Multum Ciceronis est in hac epistola ("There is much of Cicero in this letter," i.e., much eloquence). Lenehan's "Joe Miller" is antonomasia of this sort. Miller was an 18th century English actor. After his death in 1738 his friend John Motley published, under the pseudonym Elijah Jenkins, Joe Miller's Jests, a collection of not particularly witty witticisms, many of which had little connection to the supposed source. Revisions and sequels continued to be published well into the 19th century, and a familiar old joke came to be known as a Millerism or, as in Aeolus, a Joe Miller.

Antonomasia is so closely related to metonymy that it might be called a sub-species of that trope. The term periphrasis occasionally is used in a synonymous sense, but its primary meaning is much more general.

John Hunt 2023
Title page of the 1739 edition of Joe Miller's Jests, scanned from a 1963 Dover facsimile. Source: Wikimedia Commmons.