Got a Word Named after You? Eponyms

Another Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, and I’m ready to enter the labyrinth of language where surprises await us each week. It’s time to feature another kind of word defined by its etymology: eponyms. Eponyms are words named after a person–real or fictional.

For instance, you’ve probably all heard of sideburns, named after Civil War Union General Ambrose Burnside who sported ridiculously long facial hair that grew from his ears to his mustache. Originally, such facial hair were called burnsides, and then sideburns. Or how about an atlas? Our bound collections of world maps were named for the mythological Titan Atlas who presumably held up the globe on his shoulders.

Let’s take a look at some other fascinating ones. These examples are from the fabulous book Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano, whose books I highly recommend to language lovers.

Boycott. British Army Captain Charles Boycott became a land agent for Lord Erne’s estate in the Irish countryside. A bad crop in 1879 threatened the lands of potato growers, and a Land League was formed that promised retaliation against anyone who attempted to evict the Irish tenant farmers. Boycott posted writs of eviction, and in turn was ostracized by his community. “No shop would serve him, the postman stopped delivering his mail, and even his church congregation gave him the deep freeze.” Thus, we have the word “boycott”–meaning “to combine in abstaining from, or preventing dealings with, as a means of intimidation or coercion.” As for Charles Boycott, he left the area before Christmas, and the British Prime Minister introduced legislation that met many of the Land League’s demands.

Frisbee. We can thank a pie maker in Bridgeport, Connecticut for this name. Originally the brainchild of drunk Yale students who ate a pie and started playing catch with the tin, it became popular across the Yale campus for students to purchase a pie from Mrs. Frisbie’s Pies of Bridgeport and then use the pie tin to play a game. Mrs. Frisbie was hardly complaining when her sales reached 80,000 a day in 1956. Meanwhile, Fred Morrison created the flying disc we know of today, which caught the eye of Wham-O. They decided the fun disc needed a fun name, so they adopted the one already in use where pie tins were flying through the air. Of course, they had to change the spelling, but that’s how we got the frisbee. Thanks to Mrs. Frisbie for such a great name. (If her name had been Mrs. Scherbatsky, would we all be tossing Scherbatskys?)

Guillotine. I’m sure you can already guess that some cold-hearted executioner is behind this one. Physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a method of execution to the French Revolutionary body in 1789. He thought it would be more efficient and humane. I suppose that compared to some of the executions of the day, it was a quicker and thus nicer way to go. All this has led us to rather useful guillotines of today: the bagel guillotine; the cigar guillotine; and the paper guillotine trimmer. Thanks, Dr. Guillotin!

Jacuzzi. Candido Jacuzzi was a loving father who wanted to help his son who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. So he invented a portable pump that he could put into a bathtub to recreate a whirlpool. His nephew, Roy Jacuzzi, saw greater opportunity and began producing the pump as a product from their family business in the 1960s. The sales of jacuzzi pumps outdistanced the sales of their regular product–aircraft equipment–and took over.

Leotard. Jules Léotard invented two things–the flying trapeze and the one-piece costume he flew through the air in. Jules was a novice acrobat who did his routine on fixed bars, like everyone else. Then one day, voila! the notion occurred to him to let those bars swing. In 1859 he debuted his flying trapeze act and became an international superstar. He then redesigned the standard acrobat clothing into a single piece that clung to his body–aka the “leotard.” Circus performers, gymnasts, and ballet dancers can thank The Daring Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Mausoleum. A Persian satrap (local ruler) named Mausolos had a super-swank tomb. In 335 B.C. after he died, his wife/sister Artemisia was so broken up that she commissioned a whopping memorial so amazing that it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Eventually, as in 16 centuries later, earthquakes got to this architecture marvel, but to this day large tomb with statues and architectural finery are called mausoleums after the ruler Mausolos.

Paparazzi. Thanks to Lady Gaga, I can no longer say this word, but rather I sing it, “Papa, Paparazzi.” But this word came into use long before Gaga hit the scene. The classic movie La Dolce Vita (1960) from famed director Federico Fellini included a character who made a living taking secret photos of celebrities around town. Screenwriter Ennio Flaiano wasn’t sure what to name this character until he ran across English novelist George Gissing’s travel book By the Ionian Sea in which he mentions a lodging proprietor by the surname of Paparazzo. The photographer was thus named Paparazzo, and the term paparazzi came to mean those picture-takers who will do nearly anything to get a candid shot of a celebrity.

Ritzy. César Ritz started in Paris as a waiter, but through work and flair rose to become a hotelier himself. He co-managed London’s Savoy Hotel and then opened the Hotel Ritz in 1898. The Hotel Ritz, and César himself, were displays of luxury that captured the wealthy’s attention. Thus, a highfalutin’ place or person became known as “ritzy.”

Voltage. I’m sure you science types already know this one, but for the rest of us, let me introduce Alessandro Volta, a high school physics teacher from Como, Italy. He posited that electric current was produced by contact of the two different metals. Volta tinkered with electricity and, using his knowledge, developed the world’s first battery in 1800. Thus, the charge contained in the battery is known as its “voltage.”

Zeppelin. I credit Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin for keeping this term alive, since you almost never see a zeppelin anymore, but Led Zeppelin is heard all over the airwaves (and apparently on VP Candidate Paul Ryan’s playlist). The original word, however, comes from Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an aviator who worked with the Union Army Balloon Corps doing reconnaissance. After the Civil War, von Zeppelin concluded that he could build a motor-powered balloon with a hard shell and patented one in 1899. Zeppelins were used as commercial flights, bombers in World War I, and for civilian flights after the war. Perhaps we’ll see more soon with Goodyear’s announcement last year that they will be purchasing three zeppelins to add to their blimp fleet.

Did you know these eponyms? Were you even familiar with the word “eponym”? Do you have any others to share?

Sources: Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano; Everything You Know about English Is Wrong;

23 thoughts on “Got a Word Named after You? Eponyms

    1. When I first started writing about language, I thought I might run out of things to talk about. I won’t! I find this stuff fascinating too, and language is so rich. Thanks, Diana!

  1. I love these! I had heard every word but didn’t know the history of a single one of them. Fascinating! The one about the guy’s mausoleum being a wonder of the world really captures my imagination. Thanks so much for going to the time and trouble to present this!

      1. Ha! Good question. *scratches chin* If I could pick, I’d say when someone rigs something with a bunch of duct tape and cardboard and possibly string, it’d be “Brambilla-ing” it. Like, “Oh, I just Brambilla-ed my son a race car out of cardboard and tape. He just loves it!”

  2. Love your Amazing Word Wednesdays. They’re always very interesting and fun and this one is no exception. Thanks.

  3. I’m entertained and informed. I had never heard the word eponym before and I didn’t know even half of these stories. Mausoleum’s background tickled my interest too.

    One etymology that came to mind was C-section aka Caesarean section, supposedly named after Julius Caesar who was born in that way.

  4. Fascinating, Julie. Tossing Scherbatskys, too funny 🙂 I didn’t know about the leotard, I’ve warn tons of them and had no idea. Thanks, Julie, that was fun.

  5. Julie, this was a fabulous post! I had not heard of the word eponym. But I love history, so this was so interesting finding out who was behind the inventions. Very cool! 🙂

  6. This was so interesting! I didn’t know any of this information before, so thanks for enlightening me! The only one I’ve ever heard of befor (though after some light research I suspect it’s false) is the word “gaudy.” Apparently it’s named after the S

    1. Well, that’s what I get for trying to do this on my phone. *sigh* Sorry about that!

      Anyway, it was apparently named after the Spanish architect Gaudi, who had quite and elaborate style to all of his work.

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