August 31, 2010

Words of the Month - What's in a Name?

        A word that derives from the name of an individual is called an eponym.  There are lots of obvious ones, such as all the units named after scientists, from volts and watts to becquerels and curies.  There are plenty of minerals, such as Howardite, Zhemchuzhnikovite, and Thomasclarkite, and plenty of flowers - think forsythia, poinsettia, begonia…  But there's nothing interesting about these eponyms.  They're too deliberate, too self-conscious, and most of them aren't even familiar to any but specialists in their fields.  No, the eponyms I want to focus on here are the ones that seem like ordinary words (if there is such a thing in this fantastic language!).  These are words that you may have used quite commonly for years without ever even realizing that you're actually saying someone's name.

        boycott - Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897) English estate manager in Ireland
In 1880 Boycott, who was a land agent for Lord Erne in County Mayo, was targeted by a campaign for tenants' rights.  The local labor refused to harvest Lord Erne's crops, and when Boycott tried to stop them, he was ostracized by his community.  Even the postman refused to deliver mail to him.  In the end 50 Protestants travelled to County Mayo, protected by over a thousand troops and policemen, and brought in the potato harvest... and the incident gave the world a new word.  Boycott left Ireland shortly thereafter.
In this silhouette, Nimble Jack appears
to be wearing a leotard.

        leotard - Jules Léotard
     (c1839-1870) French aerialist
Leotard was a revolutionary trapeze artist who was the first to turn a full somersault in midair, and the first to jump from one trapeze to another.  He inspired the 1867 song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," and of course was known for his skin-tight one-piece outfit.  He himself called this garment a maillot, but in 1886 it was called a leotard in English.  Fun fact: Léotard passed his law exams before joining the circus.



        maudlin - Mary Magdalene
     (some time around 0-50) disciple of Jesus
Very little is known about the life of Mary, although she may have come from the town of  Magdala.  Jesus healed her of some disease, and she supported his ministry, both financially and by accompanying him as he preached.  She may have been the only person present at the crucifixion, the burial, and the empty tomb, all three.  She is believed to be the first person to have seen Jesus after the resurrection, and she brought the news of the resurrection to the apostles.  One thing she almost certainly was not was a prostitute who had to repent of her guilty life.  It was Pope Gregory the Great who identified her as a prostitute in 591, and thereafter she has been depicted in art as perpetually weeping over her own past sins.  By c 1600 her name (from the Middle English version of her name, Maudelen) had come to mean tearful, and by the 1630s the word had reached its present meaning involving tearful sentimentality.  (The Eastern Orthodox Church never viewed her this way, and in 1969 the Vatican admitted that Roman Catholicism had been mistaken in identifying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.  Perhaps now she can finally dry her tears.)

        shrapnel - Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) British army officer
Shrapnel invented "spherical case" ammunition, which consisted of a hollow cannon ball filled with shot, that burst in mid-air causing wider damage.  His invention was adopted by the British army in 1803, and was at that time called after him.  In return for the success of his invention, Shrapnel was promoted and given a generous pension.  The shells of his design were made through the end of World War I, and his name is now given to any sort of explosive fragmentation and flying debris.  (Thanks for the carnage, Henry!)

        silhouette - Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) French finance minister
De Silhouette was given the task of getting France's terrible deficit under control during France's Seven Years' War against England.  Among his measures were taxing the rich according to signs of wealth, such as windows, luxury goods, and servants.  (Nobility had been exempt from taxes.)  He also ordered the melting down of precious metals for the war effort.  Needless to say, the nobility failed to appreciate his efforts.  His name was used mockingly to refer to the simple and inexpensive portrait form that less wealthy people could afford.  The word entered the English language around 1790-1800, after his death.  I don't know when it was first used in France.

        grog - Edward Vernon (1684-1757) British admiral
Edward Vernon may not sound much like the name that gave us the word grog, but bear with me.  The admiral's habit of wearing a grogram cloak, (grogram being a fabric) gave rise to his nickname "Old Grog."  In 1740 Vernon ordered that his sailors be served a mixture of rum and water rather than pure spirits, and he also had citrus juice added to the mixture to improve the flavor of the foul water.  (It was not until 1747 that James Lind proved that the vitamin C in the citrus juice was helping to keep the sailors healthier.)  The rest of the navy followed suit and by 1770 the mixture was known by Vernon's nickname.  Groggy originally meant "drunk," and came to be used for "staggering, dazed, weak" around 1832.

        I'm afraid I really ought to stop lest I get completely carried away and go on forever.  But there's no reason you can't do a little research yourself.  Here are a few more nifty eponyms to look up: cardigan, chauvinist, derrick, doily, draconian, graham cracker, guillotine, guppy, lynch, quixotic, sandwich.  I can't tell you how tickled I was to learn that it was Mr Guppy who first presented samples of those little fish to the British Museum.  Maybe you'll learn something that delights you.

        [Picture: Jack, Be Nimble!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]

1 comment:

  1. 1763 portraits à la silhouette « dessins au trait de profil exécutés en suivant l'ombre projetée par un visage ou un corps » (Du Laurens, L'Arétin moderne, 61 ds Quem. DDL t. 12)

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