eponyms /EP-ə-nimz/. noun. Words derived from names. From Greek epi (to) and onyma (name).
Discovering the literally saintly origins of the word tawdry put me on the hunt for more words derived from names. But I wasn’t seeking garden variety eponyms: proper nouns and place names and -isms. Your Dickensian and Darwinian, your Don Juanism and Epicureanism…these are all fine morsels. And I’m sure Tasmania and the Bering Sea have their charms, for which the explorers they are named after would be proud. But I was after more subtle wordy game, the eponyms that we don’t recognize as such because they’ve become so adept at hiding right out in the open.
Many flowers are less-than-obviously named after people: the fuchsia (whose spelling you will never get wrong again if you remember it was named after the botanist Leonhard Fuchs), the magnolia (another botanist, French this time), the begonia (from Michel Bégon, a French official and passionate plant collector) and the zinnia (after the doctor J. G. Zinn). I was sadly unable to find a flower named after a lawyer to complete the eponym-ific trifecta.
The plethora of hats and caps named after people also didn’t yield the one eponym to rule them all. There’s the Tam o’Shanter, of course, named after the hero in the Robert Burns poem of the same name, but the bowler, the derby and the trilby too…all named after people, fictional and not, but mostly forgotten, even Trilby, the hero of George du Maurier’s book of the same name who was, the OED tells us, “noted for her beautiful feet.”
In fact, our common language abounds with eponyms based on fictional characters—or arguably fictional characters in the form of gods and figures of myth. Quixotic comes most immediately to mind thanks to the indelible image of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. But some are less obvious, including to pander, coined after Pandarus, a go-between featuring in the tragic love story of Troilus and Cressida that proved irresistible to Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, or priapism, named after the minor—but arguably more fortunate—Greek god Priapus, god of gardens, fertility, fruit plants and male genitalia. And sometimes the folk etymology we are rightly suspicious of turns out to be true. I refer here not to sandwich, which really was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who created them in order to eat at the gambling tables, but jumbo, which really was the name of a famous circus elephant in the 1880s, a fit pairing with gargantuan, which came to us from one of the titular characters in Rabelais’ satire Gargantua and Pantagruel.
At this point, some possibly Freudian entanglement led me to an eponym most of us know, even if we don’t talk about it (the etymology I mean). Sadism is named after the infamous Marquis de Sade, but I was unaware that its perfect partner, masochism, is also an eponym, named after Austrian nobleman and writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who was not pleased at—but posed little resistance to—being called the “poet of Masochism” by pioneering psychiatrist of so-called sexual psychopathy Richard von Krafft-Ebing.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the word martinet—a strict disciplinarian of another kind—-comes from a person’s name, but surprisingly that person wasn’t named Martin. This now generally negative word comes from the name of Jean Martinet, a general who revolutionized the French military through drills and discipline (and introduced the bayonet along the way), creating the prototypical modern, professional fighting force rid of mercenaries. Ironically, in the popular sense of the word, Martinet met his end through friendly fire from his own well-trained troops.
Incredibly, the other martinet—the short, wooden-handled whip—is unrelated to the martinet of the type we might expect to use one. That martinet, a softer cat o’ nine tails (or perhaps a firmer feather duster) that was once a common means of discipline in some schools and now probably features in some eponymic activities mentioned earlier, was named after the shape of the swallow’s (also know as a martin’s) tail.
While the militant martinet has undergone a shift in popular meaning to the negative, another eponym appears to be in the middle of that process. To be a maverick—a non-conformist, unorthodox individual—can still be a good or a bad thing depending on ones (likely political) perspective. Unless you’re referring to the Mel Gibson film of the same name, which is undeniably bad. But there’s no doubt that the word itself comes from Sam Maverick, a Texas politician, lawyer and land baron who refused to brand his cattle (unbranded cattle are sometimes still referred to as mavericks), though whether his refusal to do so was to avoid inflicting pain or so that he could rustle up and claim ownership of any unbranded cattle he happened upon is still a matter of dispute.
Of the scores of eponyms I discovered, from algorithm to the aforementioned Zinnia, the most unexpected was boycott. Perhaps mislead by the word girlcott, I was surprised to learn that boycott is actually derived from Captain Charles Boycott, an estate agent in Ireland during the “Land Wars” of the 1870s and 80s. Despite record-poor harvests, the hapless Boycott offered only a 10% reduction in rent for the properties he managed and then evicted nearly a dozen tenants who demanded a more reasonable rate. This lead Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the most influential politicians of the era, to disavow a violent response and instead propose shunning anyone who moved onto the land of the evicted farmers. As riled folks often do, the community directed its ire at landlords and estate agents, including the tone-deaf Boycott, whose name became synonymous with the action in newspapers in the Fall of 1880. In effect, the word boycott comes from verbing a name, something I do often but with, so far, no such linguistic success.
- Whonamedit – dictionary of medical eponyms – from Alzheimer’s through Fallopian tubes to Zinn’s Zone
Sideburns were indeed named after United States General Ambrose Burnside who, in addition to leading the losing side of one of the most lopsided Union defeats of the Civil War, sported something more than sideburns but less than a beard. Perhaps that explains how his name got flipped around to name the normally tamer variety we see today.
Some other eponyms…including a few that may surprise you:
From Real People
- saxophone (and sousaphone)
- watt (volt)
From Fictional Characters, the Bible and Gods
- adam’s apple
- malapropism (or Dogberryism)