What is an eponym?

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When you want to clean the floors, do you use a vacuum cleaner or a hoover? Do you wipe your nose on a kleenex or a tissue? And when you’re walking through mud, would you go for waterproof rubber boots or wellingtons? In other words, do you use the generic or general name for the object, or do you use its eponym?

An eponym is a word which is derived  from a personal name. In the first two examples above, “Hoover” and “Kleenex” are manufacturers of the objects whose names have become so well-known that the manufacturer’s name has become synonymous with the name of the product. In the third example, although many people assume that the Duke of Wellington invented this type of waterproof boot, it was probably simply named in honour of him because he was a national hero at the time the boots were first manufactured.

Most (but by no means all) eponyms are nouns and they often relate to items named after someone who invented, originated or first popularised the item in question.Examples include:

  • Bloomers, named after Amelia Bloomer who in the late nineteenth century first urged women to wear knickerbockers for cycling and outdoor sports
  • Morse code, named after Samuel Morse who devised it
  • Pavlova, an Australian meringue dessert named in honour of the ballerina Anna Pavlova
  • Shrapnel, named after Henry Shrapnel, who invented the first shrapnel shell
  • Biro, named after Hungarian artist, Ladislao Biro who perfected the first ballpoint pen
  • Bowler (hat), named after John Bowler, a London hatter who first produced this type of hat in 1850

Many scientists have given their names to devices, systems or scientific processes. For instance, all these units of measurement are named after scientists: watt, Newton, ampere, Celsius, joule, hertz, ohm, Fahrenheit. And many scientific processes and medical diseases were named after scientists. For instance, Louis Pasteur invented pasteurisation, a process which rids milk of undesirable organisms, and salmonella was named after Daniel Salmon who first identified it.

/www.flickr.com/photos/negfoto/3948667753

/www.flickr.com/photos/negfoto/3948667753

Thousands of plants and flowers are named after people,some of the most common ones being begonia (Michel Begon); dahlia (Anders Dahl); poinsettia (Joel Poinsettia); rudbeckia (Olof Rudbeck); and camellia (Georg Kamel).

Then there are many foods named after people – such as Bechamel sauce (Marquis de Bechamel); chateaubriand (Vicomte de Chateaubriand); Bramley apples (Matthew Bramley); praline (Count Plessis-Praslin) and, perhaps most famously of all, sandwiches named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

The list goes on and on. And other words named after people have interesting individual stories. Here are six of the best:

1) The word “tawdry” meaning gaudy or cheap is named after St Audrey. She was afflicted by a throat tumour which she believed was a punishment for all the gaudy, pretty trinkets she wore as a young girl.

2) A  “maverick” now is someone who stands out as being different from the crowd. Samuel Maverick was a nineteenth century Texas rancher who failed to brand some of his cattle. When the unbranded cattle strayed onto other ranches, they stood out as being different! So the wily ranch owners rectified the situation by putting their own brand on them.

3) The word “boycott” is named after Captain Charles Boycott who was ostracised in Ireland when he treated tenants badly.

4) “Lynchings” were named after Charles Lynch, who was infamous in eighteenth century Virginia as a magistrate who handed out brutal “justice” to local people.

flickr.com/photos/dougfloyd/311052772

flickr.com/photos/dougfloyd/311052772

 5) “Sideburns”  are named in a funny backwards kind of way after General Ambrose Burnside who made himself conspicuous through the whiskery decor on the sides of his face.

6) Irishman Patrick Hooligan has the very dubious honour of being the man who inspired the word “hooligan“. In 1890’s Southwark he was renowned for beating people up for the slightest of reasons.

Of course there are many other eponyms in the English language and, because language is continually developing, new ones are being added all the time. If you know or suspect that other words have an interesting background, please comment below.

Read about famous last words here:

Read about proverbs here:

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One thought on “What is an eponym?

  1. Ray

    St Alban’s Church, Beaworthy, Devon

    “A typed sheet inside connects John Maverick, the rector from 1615 to 1629, with the derivation of the word “maverick”. He sailed to America with his wife and 5 children on the “Mary and John” and helped found Dorchester, Massachusetts. Over 200 years later, his descendant, Samuel Maverick, became a successful cattle rancher in Texas. He was notorious for failing to brand his cattle, and stray unbranded calves were considered likely as not to belong to him. Hence a master-less, roving, casual person. . Ironically, John Maverick owned just 2 cattle in Dorchester.”

    I lived next to this church for a few years after I moved back to Devon.

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