An Exploration of Eponyms
Silhouettes, cardigans, and sandwiches are all named after the people who created them. The English language is filled with eponyms, words that take their origin from a person, and also there’s one from an elephant.
The French Contribution
Nicholas Chauvin was a soldier in Napoleon’s army who maintained, even in defeat, and stubborn devotion to his commander-in-chief. His fidelity came to mean an unreasoned and total loyalty to nationalism. Later, the scope of the word was widened to include blind allegiance to an ideology, group, or gender.
Skinflint, tightwad, and miser are all words that could be applied to Étienne de Silhouette, the finance minister of France in the 18th century. His hobby was cutting shadow portraits out of paper. These could be produced far more cheaply than paintings so they became popular and synonymous with the parsimonious Silhouette.
In 1812, a boy of three was playing with an awl in his father’s workshop. Accidentally, he stabbed himself in the eye. An infection followed and spread to the other eye, rendering the child blind. As a young teenager he began working on a system of raised dots on paper that would allow the sightless to read. By the time he was 15, Louis Braille’s embossed code was essentially complete.
And, French physician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin designed a more humane way of bumping off criminals than had previously been used. “With my machine,” he said “I strike off your head in the twinkling of an eye and you won’t feel a thing.”
What a comfort that must have been to those pinioned under the blade.
General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842) was a British artillery officer who spent 28 years perfecting an explosive shell filled with projectiles that tore apart the bodies of enemy soldiers. Still today, the fragments of an exploded shell casing are called shrapnel.
We have another general, this time with the U.S. Army, to thank for sideburns. General Ambrose E. Burnside (1824-81) wasn’t the first to sport long whiskers down the side of his face, but he did give his name to the style with the syllables switched.
Lower down the military food chain we find Colonel Jean Martinet (1643-1715). He believed that plenty of drill and obedience were the means to turning a lad off the turnip wagon into a disciplined soldier. A martinet today is someone who enforces strict adherence to rules.
James Brudenell (1797-1868) was a British general. He was rich, stylish, and domineering. He kitted out the soldiers of his regiment with woollen waistcoats. These are, of course, not called brudenell’s today because among his other attributes James was also the seventh Earl of Cardigan. He led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade and, unlike most of his soldiers, survived.
A Collection of Eponyms
The English have a lot to answer for in their treatment of the Irish. Among the outrages was the action of a land agent who worked for Lord Erne. He charged outrageous rent to his tenant farmers and when, in 1880, 11 of them refused to pay, the agent started to evict them. This triggered resistance. The tenants refused to bring in his harvest, shopkeepers declined to serve him, and nobody would speak to him. The agent’s name was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott.
In 1846, a new instrument found its way into military bands in the United States. It was the invention of one Adolphe Sax and was and is called the saxophone. Its more natural home is in rock and roll and jazz music than with martial music. It belongs in the hands of Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, and the like.
An English plumber of the Victorian age plied his trade among the highest levels of society. He and his tool kit were often found in Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey tinkering with the pipes. Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the flush toilet but he refined it and promoted its installation in the great houses of Britain. The credit for turning out the first water closet goes to Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I. Hence, the more polite name for the “crapper” is the “john.”
Often, the person who makes a discovery doesn’t get it named after them. University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler codified this effect by propounding a law that takes his name.
The idea is that scientists rarely get credit for their discoveries while they are still alive. As time passes, it becomes more and more murky who should get the honour of having their name attached to a scientific principle.
Stigler’s Law is, in fact, a slightly tongue-in-cheek example of Stigler’s Law.
Alois Alzheimer has his name attached to the brain wasting disease in the early 1900s, but the condition was first described by a Dr. Beljahow a couple of decades earlier.
Theobald Smith discovered the salmonella bacterium, but he was just a lowly functionary at the time working under the direction of his boss Daniel E. Salmon.
Halley’s Comet whizzes by our planet about every 75 years, but its passing was first observed and recorded in 239 BCE. But, the English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) gets his name attached to the comet. Undoubtedly, it was seen long before that by some unknown people on the plains of Africa.
And, while we are in Africa, let’s check in on a large elephant that became famous worldwide in the 19th century. There are a number of theories as to how Jumbo got his name, but he handed it down to describe anything that is bigger than normal such as jumbo jets, burgers, candy bars, and anything else marketing people want to pass off as a bargain.
In the American southeast there is a rabbit that lives in marshland; it’s named Hugh Hefner after the man and his Playboy Bunny empire.
A species of horse fly found in north-eastern Queensland, Australia is noted for having a large golden backside. Scaptia beyonceae is named after the American singer Beyoncé.
Three species of beetle have been named after American humourists, Jon Stewart, Mark Twain, and Stephen Colbert.
- “30 Words Inspired by 29 People and An Elephant.” Maeve Maddox, dailywritingtips.com, undated.
- “The Top Ten: Eponyms.” John Rentoul, The Independent, September 14, 2014.
- “Famous Names that Inspired Common Words.” Dictionary.com, undated.
- “Stigler’s Law: Why Nothing in Science Is ever Named After its Actual Discoverer.” Alasdair Wilkins, io9gizmodo.com, July 13, 2011.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor