Titular vs. Eponymous: What’s the Difference?

Miranda is an important character in Shakespeare's The Tempest, but she's not the titular role.
Miranda is an important character in Shakespeare's The Tempest, but she's not the titular role. / John William Waterhouse, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan’s character Lady Bird is vexed to discover that she’s been cast as “The Tempest” in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While Lady Bird considers the made-up role an embarrassingly transparent scheme to include her in the school production, her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), sees it differently. “It is the titular role!” Julie shouts.

Whether or not you think “The Tempest” should be an actual character, Julie’s statement isn’t wrong. Since Shakespeare titled the play after the storm, “The Tempest” is technically titular. Though that particular part isn’t usually a person, plenty of Shakespeare’s other titular roles actually are—take Hamlet, Othello, and Julius Caesar. This definition of titular, as “from whom or which a title or name is taken,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been around for quite a while. In Alban Butler’s 18th-century work The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, he repeatedly refers to “titular” saints and patrons after which certain churches were named. While Butler often uses titular to describe the person that something is named after, it’s also been used to describe the thing itself. “Wee reach Medina, the titular towne of the greate Duke of Medina,” British Jesuit William Atkins wrote in the mid-1600s. In other words, Medina is the titular town of the duke—and the Duke of Medina is the titular duke of the town.

These days, the situation with eponymous is similar. As Grammarphobia explains, the noun eponym historically referred to a person (or character) who lent their name to something. The eponym of Ford Motor Company, for example, is Henry Ford. Lady Bird is the eponymous teenager of the film Lady Bird. But over time, eponymous, too, has gone the way of titular. You might call Ford Motor Company “Henry Ford’s eponymous business,” or mention that Lady Bird is a hilariously relatable character in her eponymous movie.

If you’ve been led to believe that titular isn’t a synonym for eponymous, it’s probably because titular has more than one meaning. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the term is “having the title and usually the honors belonging to an office or dignity without the duties, functions, or responsibilities.” A CEO who always dines out on the company’s dime but rarely shows up to company meetings might be considered a titular CEO; basically, a CEO only in title.

But since titular has been used so often (and for so long) in the sense we discussed earlier, feel free to mention it whenever your best friend gets cast as the eponymous character—made-up or not—in the school play.

[h/t Grammarphobia]