The concept of antonomasia comes from the Latin word antonomasĭa, which in turn derives from the Greek antonomasía. An antonomasia is a kind of synecdoche that involves referring to someone through one of their qualities, or naming a quality by the proper name of the one who holds it.
It should be remembered that the idea of synecdoche belongs to the field of rhetoric: it is a trope (the change from one expression to another that has a figurative sense) that designates an element with the name of another.
In this way we can say that the antonomasia is a trope or, more specifically, a synecdoche. An example of excellence occurs when someone mentions the City of Light to name Paris. In this case, instead of alluding to the capital of France by name, reference is made to its quality as a pioneer in the development of lighting for public spaces (or even for its status as a cultural “beacon”).
If we focus on the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, we will notice that “the Philosopher” was frequently used to refer to Aristotle, one of the most outstanding figures of Ancient Greece, thanks to his invaluable contributions in fields such as logic and philosophy. Given that Aristotle’s ideas exerted an immense influence in the West that transcended time and space, with effect even today, it is only fair that his person be considered a synonym of thinker.
Referring to a man of great physical beauty as an adonis is also quintessential. The figurative sense arises from the mythological character Adonis, son of Cíniras and Mirra who was noted for his beautiful appearance.
Another example of this use, contrary to the previous one, is frequently given in reference to Adolf Hitler and his nameless acts of cruelty, which left an indelible scar in the history of humanity. Since this unfortunate character showed us that the evil of the human being seems to have no limit, it is not uncommon to use his name as a synonym for bloody dictator.
The first person to have distinguished and established the use of this class of excellence was Gérard Jean Vossius, a 16th-century university professor from the Netherlands dedicated to teaching philosophy, theology, Greek language, and history. For this reason, it is correct to mention it under the name of Vossian antonomasia. Although these are common nouns, they can also be capitalized and act as proper nouns.
The expression “par excellence”, on the other hand, is an adverbial phrase used to mention a thing or a subject through an appellation denoting that, among elements of the same class, it is the most relevant or known. When someone talks about “the virgin” it is understood that, par excellence, they mean the Virgin Mary.
The use of this expression is common in everyday speech to exalt the abilities of certain highly gifted people, as well as to condemn the reprehensible attitudes of those who display them in ways that are impossible to ignore. As can be seen, the range of cases that this term can cover, specifically when it is said to be quintessential, is very wide.
Let’s look at some sentences in which what is stated in the previous paragraph is clearly seen: “Barbra Streisand is the singer par excellence”, “I could not trust this company, since they are criminals par excellence”. If we wanted to express the same ideas in other words, we could say that “there is no singer with such a wonderful voice as Barbra Streisand” or that “this company is famous for defrauding its customers in every way possible”.