Word Matters Podcast

Eponyms: Words Named After Real People

Word Matters, episode 60

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You know that old cliche, "When they look up X in the dictionary, they'll see your picture"? Well, for these folks, that saying is true. Today we're talking eponyms.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: eponyms—when you're notorious enough to get a word named for you. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionaries vantage point.

We often discuss how a particular English word came to be. Was it born among English's earliest Germanic roots, or did it come from the French, spoken by those Norman Invasion folks? Or was it a product of mashing two existing words together? Well, thanks to a question from a listener, today we're discussing that small set of words that have the name of a particular person as their source. So-called eponyms take hold when some regular Jack, Jane, or Joe Schmoe somehow manages, regrettably or not, to make a lexical impression. I'll start things off.

We have an email from Fred who asks about eponyms. He writes, "I've always been fascinated with the idea of eponyms, the words in our language created by using someone's name. It's wild that these people, real or fictional, have had such an effect on society that we're still using these names as everyday, more or less, wordage. Is there any standard to eponyms? Are there any hiding in plain sight, so often used it doesn't register that this was once a term that referred to a particular person?" And the answer is a resounding yes. There are so many eponyms that are no longer recognized as being eponyms. I have a favorite. My favorite is sideburns.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yes.

Emily Brewster: Everyone knows the story of sideburns? There was a general—General Ambrose Burnside was a Civil War veteran. He was a Senator from Rhode Island, also a Governor of Rhode Island. He's better known for his expressive facial hair than he is for any of his diplomatic or military achievements. He had a lot of facial hair that grew on the side of his face and his name was eventually turned around. First, these things, this beautiful hair that he had. And there are great pictures of him if anybody wants to Google General Ambrose Burnside. Originally they called them burnside whiskers, and then that got switched around to sideburns.

Peter Sokolowski: How did it get switched?

Emily Brewster: I think just the playfulness and creativity of English speakers.

Peter Sokolowski: Maybe folk etymology, basically the idea of them being on the sides. It's just a coincidence that the man's name was Burnside.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: My favorite is Jehu, which was the name of a king of Israel in the ninth century BC.

Emily Brewster: How do you spell it?

Ammon Shea: J-E-H-U.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Ammon Shea: And he was a famous chariot driver. And so it took on an extended meaning of "a driver, especially somebody who drives fast or recklessly." You would see it frequently in the phrase "drives like Jehu."

Peter Sokolowski: Really?

Ammon Shea: Which is not really that current.

Peter Sokolowski: No, I've never heard of it.

Emily Brewster: No. Another one that's also biblically based is Jonah. Jonah, meaning "one believed to bring bad luck or misfortune."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, that was used in Master and Commander.

Ammon Shea: The Bible is full of them. And what's interesting to me is when they sometimes turn around. For instance, Nimrod is represented in Genesis. He was a mighty hunter. And for hundreds, thousands of years, Nimrod was a term for a hunter. And relatively recently it's become used as "a foolish person."

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: I don't know if this is true or not, but the story that I heard was that this was probably from a Bugs Bunny episode in which Bugs Bunny refers to Elmer Fudd as Nimrod because he was hunting him, but he does so in a mocking, derisive manner. And from thence, we get Nimrod as—

Peter Sokolowski: The power of pop culture.

Ammon Shea: I wouldn't ask to be quoted on that, but that's what I heard.

Emily Brewster: Well, that's an interesting speculation and possible for sure.

Peter Sokolowski: Some of these are so embedded in the language, we don't think of them as being proper names. Some of them from noble names like Sandwich.

Emily Brewster: Oh, sandwich is such a good one because that word is ubiquitous, everybody eats sandwiches and nobody thinks about the Earl of Sandwich.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: Do you know the story?

Peter Sokolowski: He didn't want to leave the card table, is that right?

Emily Brewster: Yes. It was John Montague, who was the fourth Earl of Sandwich. He died in the late 18th century and he was a diplomat and he was also a notorious gambler. And the legend is that he was gambling one night and did not want to leave the gaming table at all, sat there for 24 hours and was ordering slices of cold beef between pieces of toast. That's how he got through the game. We don't know if he won or lost or if he ended up ahead or not, but that is the legend of the story of the word sandwich.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow, Earl of Sandwich. And there's a bunch of sort of French nobility names, I should say family names, like Silhouette. And also of course, Sade, sadism, Marquis de Sade.

Ammon Shea: And Chauvin was the name of a character in a play, wasn't it? Nicolas Chauvin?

Peter Sokolowski: Chauvin. So chauvinism. And then masochism was Austrian, but also a nobleman, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for masochism.

Emily Brewster: All of these have longer stories. Like the thing about Silhouette that was so interesting is that he was very cheap. He was this French finance minister and he did not want to spend money. And so instead of having the painting of a full portrait of someone, he would just have an outline done.

Peter Sokolowski: Which was kind of a fashion in the 18th century.

Emily Brewster: It became a fashion, right? Another one is draconian. When you think of draconian laws as being overly harsh. And there was a person, Draco, who was an Athenian law giver, he is described as. So either a lawmaker or one who was determining what laws would exist in the seventh century BCE. And he created a harsh code of laws and just made the death penalty be for everything, not serious crimes, serious crimes: just death, death, death, death.

Ammon Shea: That's kind of like rhadamanthine, which comes from the Greek mythology that Rhadamanthus was one of the three judges of the underworld. And so rhadamanthine has been taken to mean rigorously strict.

Emily Brewster: More recently there's bogart, from Humphrey Bogart, of course, important 20th century actor. And the word bogart, it's a verb that we define as "to use or consume without sharing." The verb had an earlier use that meant "to bully or intimidate." Current evidence of that dates it to about the 1960s. And then this "consume without sharing" meaning developed and it was spread with the help of the Easy Rider soundtrack. The movie Easy Rider came out in 1969: "don't bogart that joint."

Ammon Shea: Was Humphrey known for this?

Emily Brewster: I don't know.

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's because he had a distinctive manner of smoking a cigarette in which he would smoke it down to the very end.

Ammon Shea: Aha.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more eponyms. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Ammon Shea: Emily, in response to the original question, there are no kind of guidelines for eponyms are there? It's just if a word takes on significant use, it becomes a word.

Emily Brewster: That's right. It's a legitimate way of coining a word. It just has to catch on. It has to be evocative. It has to be something that people take a shine to and want to apply it. That's all it takes.

Ammon Shea: Right. It seems like a lot of times the ones that are kind of buried in plain sight, so to speak, are the ones that come up in technology or sciences. Tarmac for instance, comes from macadam, which was taken actually from the name of John McAdam, who was a Scottish surveyor in the 18th and 19th century. So sometimes they change a little bit as well.

Peter Sokolowski: There was also, of course, some less savory terms like guillotine. Guillotin was the name of the doctor who recommended this instrument, this machine, during the French Revolution. And the idea of course is that it was very democratic. At the time, beheading was of course restricted to the aristocracy. And non-aristocrats had much less pleasant executions. I can't believe we're talking about this. But the idea here was that all of the condemned would have exactly the same treatment if they went to this machine. And they did, as we all know.

Emily Brewster: Right. And then there's also lynch. Lynch has a grim origin. In the late 18th century, the captain William Lynch, who led a vigilante group and they executed opponents of the American Revolution.

Peter Sokolowski: And Maverick was a farmer. Is that right?

Emily Brewster: Yes. And we've talked about him before a little bit. He was a Texas lawyer in the 1800s and somebody tried to pay him once in cattle rather than cash. And he was really annoyed. And so he just let the cattle roam. And these unbranded cattle were called "mavericks." And then eventually like someone who just goes against whatever the consensus of good behavior is.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. And what about ritzy?

Emily Brewster: Oh yeah. Ritzy.

Peter Sokolowski: R-I-T-Z-Y. Ritzy. And that refers to the hotelier of Cesar Ritz in Paris.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a famous place. And it's where Marcel Proust went for his dinners and Coco Chanel lived there and famous address in Paris. But of course the Ritz then became a kind of a chain's name, right? The Ritz Carlton, I think still exists.

Emily Brewster: That makes me think of Caesar salads.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course. That was also a restaurateur or a...

Emily Brewster: It was. Caesar salad comes from an American Italian-born restaurateur, Caesar Cardini, died 1957. So a different Caesar than the Caesar who is the eponym of C-section, caesarian section.

Peter Sokolowski: And there were a couple other food names.

Emily Brewster: Oh yeah. That's right. Cobb salad is another one.

Peter Sokolowski: Cobb was also a name.

Ammon Shea: And melba toast.

Peter Sokolowski: Peach melba, and melba toast, both from the opera singer. Right?

Emily Brewster: There's also graham cracker.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course-

Emily Brewster: This is a local story.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. That's a local connection to us here in western Massachusetts, because his name was Sylvester Graham. He lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. In fact, there's a restaurant called Sylvester's and the restaurant, the brick building on Pleasant Street in Northampton is apparently where he lived and developed his particular kind of flour.

Emily Brewster: He was a dietary reformer. And he wanted people to embrace clean living by eating good foods. And so he came up with this kind of flour.

Peter Sokolowski: We all have graham crackers to this day, because of his name.

Emily Brewster: They're essential for s'mores.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go. What happens is when these terms become standard food terms, then we think of just the food and not the origin. It's kind of amazing how many there are.

Emily Brewster: They span all of literary history, right? Like go back to ancient gods and goddesses and characters. And then also I'm sure we're getting new ones right now.

Ammon Shea: I think in a lot of cases, you don't want to see yourself turn into an eponym.

Emily Brewster: Oh, I think there are so many good ones though. I mean the food ones are kind of unequivocally positive. So if you're going to go for being an eponym—because also the word refers to the person that the word is named for, that's a less common meaning of the word eponym—if you have an ambition of becoming an eponym, go for food.

Ammon Shea: I like that you're framing this as a public service guide. You're going to be an eponym, here's what to do. Aim for food. Stay away from social matters.

Peter Sokolowski: And not public executions.

Ammon Shea: Don't kill too many people.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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