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.]