The Game of the Name

Did you ever stop to think about the many words you encounter and use that are derived from the names of real people?

Linguists call such words eponyms (EP-uh-nims), from the Greek for “named after.” Eponym can also mean the person who inspired the word. The adjective is eponymous (eh-PON-uh-mus).

The list is long, but here are a few interesting examples:

  • axel – a figure-skating maneuver. Named after Axel Paulsen (1855-1938), a champion skater.
  • bowdlerize – to remove objectionable material from a written work. Named after Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who did so to Shakespeare.
  • boycott – an organized social, economic, or political protest. Named after Charles C. Boycott (1832-97), a victim of the tactic.
  • quisling – a traitor. Named after Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), pro-Nazi leader of Norway.
  • sandwich – a… you guessed it!… sandwich. Named after the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-92). As the story goes, he couldn’t tear himself away from the gambling tables, so an aide brought him a hand-held meal consisting of meat placed between two slices of bread.

Finally, let me tell you about the fascinating origin of the word “silhouette.”

Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67) served as finance minister of France. As my logophile friend Charles Harrington Elster notes, the parsimonious official imposed severe luxury taxes and stringent austerity measures in an attempt to revive the French economy after the Seven Years’ War. As a consequence, many things became, as people scornfully said, “mere shadows” of the originals. Thus, his name inspired the phrase “a la Silhouette,” meaning “on the cheap.” The phrase was used to describe pants made without pockets, coats made without folds – and the inexpensive shadow portraits that had just become popular in Paris.

If history is any indication, the names of at least a few people now living will one day inspire the creation of new words.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.