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From Barbie to Einstein: Names That Became Common English Words

From Barbie to Einstein: Names That Became Common English Words

Throughout history, there have been both real people and fictional characters who have had a big impact on society. Sometimes the impact is so large that their name becomes a new word with a meaning that everyone understands.

The English language has many words like these, and this article will look at just a few of them. How many do you recognize?


This is probably the most common name on this list, and one you may have heard before. Albert Einstein was a physicist from Germany who became world famous because of his theory of relativity.

However, even if you don't understand exactly what he did, most people know that he was a very intelligent man who studied a very difficult form of science. That's why calling someone "Einstein" today is like calling them a genius.

You should ask Ron. He's a real Einstein when it comes to programming.
Barry's a really funny guy, but he's no Einstein.


A greedy man keeping his money to only himself

Ebenezer Scrooge is the main character in the famous novel A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens and first published in 1843. If you haven't read the book, you may have seen one of the many movie versions that have been made over the years. There is even a Disney character based on Scrooge.

The story of A Christmas Carol begins with Scrooge as a cold-hearted businessman who treats others cruelly and does anything he can to make and keep money.

The story is so well known that now his name is used to describe someone with the same personality. A "Scrooge" is someone who is not generous, not friendly and not nice to be around! This term is most commonly used during the Christmas season.

Janet is such a Scrooge. She never comes to any holiday parties.
Ben used to be a real Scrooge, but he offered to pay for everyone's lunch today. What happened to him?


Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo & Juliet is not only one of his most famous plays, it's also one of the most famous stories around the world. You probably already know about the tragic couple who fall in love while their families are at war. The story is well known for showing how far people will go for love.

Naturally, "Romeo" is what we call someone today who is in love and perhaps has lost control of themselves because of it. Just like Shakespeare's Romeo, it's a bit romantic and also a bit tragic. However, it sometimes has a meaning similar to the next name on our list.

She's all I can think about…
Calm down, Romeo. You've only been on one date with her.
I'm focused on my work right now. I don't have time to play Romeo.

Read more about Shakespeare in this article: 'Shakespeare's Influence on the English Language'

Don Juan

Don Juan is famous for being a "womanizer," or someone who has casual sexual relationships with many different women. He is a fictional character who first appeared in written stories in the 1600s, though he has been in many places since then, including a 1994 movie starring Johnny Depp. 

While Romeo may sometimes refer to a playboy, that nuance is much stronger when someone is called a "Don Juan." This term is often used in a sarcastic way.

Pete thinks he's so cool, but he's definitely no Don Juan.
He's got a reputation as a bit of a Don Juan. He's with a different woman every time I see him.


A statue of Hercules, famous for his strength

Next on our list is Hercules, a legendary character from Roman mythology who is famous for his incredible strength. Just like several other names on this list, Hercules has appeared in many books and films throughout the years, including one starring Dwayne Johnson/The Rock and an animated Disney film. 

If you haven't guessed yet, calling someone "Hercules" means you think they are very strong. Similar to Don Juan, this can also be used sarcastically. 

I like to work out, but I'm no Hercules.
I can't believe how different Jeff looks compared to the last time I saw him. When did he become Hercules?

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant detective and the main character of a series of books by British author Arthur Conan Doyle. You may have seen him played in movies by Hollywood actors like Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Sherlock Holmes is very good at noticing small details that most people don't see. This skill allows him to solve difficult and mysterious criminal cases in London and around England.

Earlier on our list, we mentioned Albert Einstein. But compared to the scientific nuance of that name, calling someone "Sherlock" compliments their cleverness or their ability to quickly find the answer to a problem. Of course, it can also be used as a joke when someone does not seem very intelligent.

I think we're lost.
Great job, Sherlock. We've been lost for the last 30 minutes!


Harry Houdini is perhaps the world's most famous illusionist, a kind of magician who tricks the eyes of the audience. Some of his most famous performances involved escaping from extremely dangerous situations such as locked boxes and underwater containers while being restrained with rope or handcuffs.

In modern conversations, calling someone a "Houdini" has a stronger connection to escaping difficult situations than to magic.

She's a Houdini; she always seems to avoid punishment even though it's always her fault.
He's coming closer. Let's do a Houdini and get out of here before he sees us.

"Houdini" is also the name of a popular song by the pop artist Dua Lipa. The lyrics describe someone who may "disappear" suddenly.

I'm not here for long

Catch me or I go



Barbie is a fashion doll that was first released in America in 1959. She was created by Ruth Handler, who named her after her daughter, Barbara. Since her debut, Barbie has become an icon and has appeared in cartoons and on many different products. A live-action movie about the character was released in 2023.

Some people think of Barbie as a good role model for girls because she has a successful career and is not dependent on men to live a fancy life. However, others dislike her, saying her body is unrealistic and that girls can develop a negative image of their own bodies by comparing themselves to Barbie.

As a result, she represents a kind of fake or unnatural beauty, as well as a lack of intelligence or depth. It is these negative traits that people are referring to when they call someone a "Barbie." Typically, it is a woman who is beautiful but in a way that is only on the surface.

People treat her like a Barbie, so she works extra hard to prove that she isn't.

Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, often receives the same criticisms as Barbie. A Barbie and Ken couple are seen as "perfect," but in a way that is shallow and fake.

Ugh, those two are like Barbie and Ken. I can't stand it.


A Frankenstein's monster covered in rags and in a scary pose

This name is unique because it's often used to talk about things rather than people.

In Mary Shelley's famous novel, first published in 1818, Dr. Victor Frankenstein builds a man from the parts of dead bodies. When he successfully makes his creation come alive, it begins a horrible series of events that affect everyone around him.

Although Frankenstein's monster does not have a name in the story, it is commonly called simply "Frankenstein." 

Today, this name is used in two different ways. In the first, it refers to a creation that eventually becomes dangerous to its creator, just like in Mary Shelley's novel. This usage is sometimes used together with "monster."

The actor's Twitter account slowly turned into a Frankenstein monster that destroyed her career.
Some people are worried that artificial intelligence will one day become a Frankenstein monster we can no longer control.

The other usage is a verb, and is a very casual way of referring to something that has been made from the parts of several different things.

I like to build radios. I Frankensteined this one out of some old equipment I found in my garage.

You may also see "Franken-" as a prefix! This usage has a similar meaning to the one explained above.

I had a bunch of different foods in my refrigerator, so I put them all into the pot and made a Franken-stew! Want to try it?


In order for a name to become a common word, the person or character it comes from has to be extremely famous. Most people living in English-speaking countries will know these names even if they don't know details about the people behind them.

For English learners, using them will add color to your conversation and make you sound much more like a native speaker, so be sure to try them out!