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Have these Allusions Eluded You?

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

Barry Blake is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University, and his books include Playing with Words, All About Language, and this May’s  Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols. In the following piece he samples some allusions that may have eluded you over the years.

Have you ever wondered where the titles of novels, plays, films and the like come from? Some are obvious, at least after you’ve read the book or seen the movie, as with Star Wars and The English Patient, but many titles are not transparent and leave you wondering just why the author chose them. These are usually allusive, they refer to something in history or literature or they take their wording from a text. These allusions are often quite esoteric, and authors must know that only some of the audience or readership will pick up on them. Presumably they get satisfaction from choosing a title with some kind of hidden significance and some theatregoers or readers probably find gratification in spotting the allusion. Surveys I have conducted over the years reveal that many allusions are lost on university students, so I’ve rounded up some examples I find to be the most “elusive.”


John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden takes its title from the Bible (Genesis 4:16) and refers to Cain, who slew his brother Abel and was exiled to live ‘on the East of Eden’. There is no mystery about the source of the title for it is discussed in the novel, but its use summons up an allusion to the whole story of Cain and Abel. The novel is about two rival sons, the goody-goody Aron and the not-so-good Cal, and as the story proceeds the reader sees parallels with the Bible story and begins to wonder if Cal will kill Aron.

Along with the Bible the other main source of literary allusions is Shakespeare. Another novel by Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent takes its title from the opening words of Richard III,

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York

These lines, which incidentally contain a pun, have become a most hackneyed source of allusion, and journalists writing about any unpleasant winter are likely to trot out this phrase in the title of their article.


A few years ago there was a television series called To the Manor Born. This combines a pun and an allusion since it is based on Hamlet’s remark,

-though I am a native here,
And to the manner born,-it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.

There is a film Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler and Shelley Long where the title comes from Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, as does the title of the novel What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson (1978), and the film with Robin Williams (1998).  The film Til Human Voices Wake Us (2002) with Guy Pearce and Helen Bonham-Carter takes its title from a line in T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Til human voices wake us and we drown). One Fine Day, which covers a romance between George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer that develops over a single day, takes its title from a famous aria One Fine Day (Un bel di) from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The film Chariots of Fire (1981) takes its title from a poem by William Blake, which originally appeared in the preface to his epic Milton (1804), but is better known as the hymn Jerusalem. The film The Usual Suspects (1995) takes its title from a line in another film, namely Claude Rains’ instruction ‘Round up the usual suspects’ in Casablanca.

The film Ronin (1998) derives from a different kind of source. Robert De Niro and Jean Reno are two former secret agents made redundant at the end of the Cold War who spend most of the film fighting other spooks. In Japan, Ronin were samurai warriors left leaderless upon the death of their master. The title implies that De Niro and Reno were warriors of the US government, but have become free agents.


Over the last few decades it has become popular for the titles of articles in newspapers and magazines to contain an allusion disguised by a pun or some other from of word play.

Calmer Chameleon (The big hit ‘Karma Chameleon’)
An article about a less flamboyant tour of Boy George and the Culture Club.

The Woes of Kilmanjaro (Ernest Hemingway The Snows of Kilmanjaro)
An article about environmental problems on and around Mount Kilmanjaro.

Climb Every Mountain (song from The Sound of Music)
Article about a mountain climber


Personal names are of allusive. If a girl is called Britney, we naturally wonder is she has been names after Britney Spears. An Indian I know has the un-Indian name Fabian, because his mother was a fan of former American teen idol Fabian. Names of properties, boats and racehorses are often allusive. An Australian mare was named Bobbitt after Lorena Bobbitt who achieved fame (or notoriety) in 1993 by cutting off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt (Now there’s an allusive name for a start!). The penis was surgically reattached and J.W. Wayne became something of a celebrity. The significance of the choice of name lay in the fact the mare’s dam was Cutter Girl.

The names chosen by rock-and-roll groups often incorporate allusion and word play. The Latin rock-and-roll group Santana have an album called Abraxas after a Gnostic deity, and a number of bands choose names that have dark, sinister or occult connotations as with Black Sabbath, who featured a song of the same name. The heavy metal band Iron Maiden takes its name from a medieval instrument of torture, and Styx takes its name from the river in Hades. Some names refer to non-mainstream sex. Soft Machine takes its name from a novel of William Burroughs, most of whose works contain lots of explicit gay sex, and Steely Dan refers to a large strap-on penis featured in another Burrough’s novel, The Naked Lunch.

Recent Comments

  1. sara

    In doing some research, I was flabbergasted to find out that the band Jethro Tull took its name from that of an 18th-century pioneer agriculturalist (I swear): http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/jtull.html. I don’t think the group members were fans of his work, they just liked the name.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca. Rebecca said: Where did that title come from? Barry Blake illuminates some allusions for us: http://bit.ly/dtWOLO […]

  3. […] mysterious significance of the name in societies past. To read more from Barry Blake check out his piece on allusions that may have eluded […]

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