What does boffin, hooligan, leotard, nicotine, tarmac and wisteria have in common? Very little it would seem, except that they are all eponyms, words derived from a real, fictional or mythical persons. Most eponyms come from a person’s surname such as mackintosh from the Scottish chemist, Charles Mackintosh, or sandwich from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Conversely, eponym also refers to the person from whom the word is derived. The word eponym comes from the Greek epi meaning ‘upon’, and onyma meaning ‘name’.
There are thousands of eponyms in the English language. Many are so common that we don’t realise that they are eponyms, such as bigot after Nathaniel Bigot, an English Puritan teacher, diesel named after Rudolph Diesel, the German mechanical engineer, or teddy bear from the nickname for the USA president Theodore Roosevelt. And would you have any idea that Granny Smith apples are named after Marie Ana (Granny) Smith who in 1868 in Australia grew an apple from a chance seedling.
People who discover or invent things are a major source of eponyms, and a large number of astronomical objects (eg. Barnard’s star, Halley’s comet), chemical elements (eg. Curium, Titanium), diseases (eg. Huntington’s disease, Münchausen syndrome), mathematical theorems (eg. Fibonacci sequence, Pythagorean theorem), minerals (eg. Fergusonite, Herbertsmithite), and scientific laws and phenomena (eg. Avogadro’s number, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Newton’s laws of motion, Richter scale), are eponymic.
And there are proprietary names that have become eponyms, though some would say they are not eponyms, just brand names that have come into general use. Some are still actively trademarked, the use of which manufacturers try to protect, whilst others are now defunct. Aspirin, blu-tack, coke (as in Coca Cola), escalator, filofax, frisbee, granola, heroin, highlighter, hula-hoop, ketchup, jacuzzi, jeep, pogo stick, post-it note, sellotape, shredded wheat, teflon, thermos, valium, velcro and zipper are eponyms in common use, though alka seltzer, brillo pad, celluloid, dettol, kleenex, linoleum, nescaf, polaroid, roladex, tippex, tupperware, walkman and xerox are now less well-known. Biro and hoover are eponyms in the United Kingdom for pens and vacuum cleaners respectively, but not apparently in the United States.
Spam, a product and trademark of Hormel Foods in the USA introduced in 1937, was originally used eponymously to refer to any brand of canned chopped pork and ham. It became part of folklore and humour through a Monty Python sketch in 1970, in which spam was portrayed as ubiquitous and inescapable. With the coming of email, spam was the ideal name for the unsolicited commercial messages that were sent indiscriminately to millions of people.
Eponymous is the adjective and there are hundreds of eponymous adjectives in the English language such as herculean from Hercules of Greek mythology, machiavellian from Niccolò Machiavelli, or sadistic from Marquis de Sade. British monarchs have given their name to eponymous adjectives of time periods or fashions such Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian.
The word eponymous is used to when referring to the title of a book that is named after the hero as in The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe or after the heroine in Emma by Jane Austen. It is also used when a band give their name to the name of their album, often their first, as in Roxy Music, the name of Roxy Music’s first album released in 1972.
As eponyms are derived from proper nouns, which are capitalised in the English language, the usual practice is to capitalise the eponymous part of the term. For example, in Parkinson’s disease, named after James Parkinson, the British physician (1755-1824), Parkinson is capitalized, but disease is not. However, many eponymous nouns and adjectives are shown in many dictionaries in lowercase as in the case of bigot and herculean above. Other examples are galvanise from Luigi Galvani, Italian physiologist (1737–1798) for his discovery of the effect of electricity on the leg muscles of a frog, and quixotic from Don Quixote, the chivalrous hero of the novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Though there are no hard and fast rules, it seems that eponyms that have come into wider use can stand alone as a single word, or which no longer depend on the source word for their meaning, are written in lower case. This perhaps explains why the mythical Gordian knot, named from Gordius the peasant king of Phrygia, is always capitalized, but draconian, from Draco, the harsh 7th century BC Athenian lawmaker, is invariably in lower case.
Here are a few other examples of eponyms with their source, though in some cases the origin of the word is disputed.
|algorithm||l-Khowarizmi, an Arabic mathematician from Bhagdad (circa 780-850) who showed that mathematical problems could be solved if broken down into a series of smaller steps, an algorithm.|
|atlas||Atlas, a Titan in Greek mythology who was forced by Zeus to carry the sky on his shoulders.|
|biro||László Jozsef Biró, Hungarian inventor (1900-1985) of the ball-point pen|
|bloomers||Amelia Bloomer, American social reformer (1818–1894) who enthusiastically promoted the loose trousered costume that had been adopted by a fellow reformer.|
|boffin||Mr Boffin, character in the novel Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, English novelist (1812-1870)|
|Caesar salad||Caesar Cardini, Italian restaurateur (1896–1956) who ran restaurants in Mexico and the USA, and who allegedly made the salad when a kitchen ran short of supplies as a result of a Fourth of 4 July rush in 1924 and he made do with what was available.|
|chauvinism||Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier in Napoleon’s army famous for his fanatical devotion to the Emperor.|
|dahlia||Named by Carl Peter Thunberg after his close personal friend, Anders Dahl (1751-1789), a Swedish botanist.|
|denim||The cotton fabric with a serge weave that originated from Nimes in south-east France, that is ‘de Nimes’.|
|Fahrenheit||Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, German instrument maker (1686-1736), who made the first reliable thermometers|
|guillotine||Joseph Ignace Guillotin, French physician (1738-1814), who invented the device|
|Hobson’s choice||Thomas Hobson, a stable owner in Cambridge, England (1544–1631), who offered the choice to customers of either taking the next horse in line or no horse at all|
|hooligan||Patrick Hooligan, London-based Irish criminal in the 1890s, but also said to be the name of a rowdy Irish family in a popular music-hall song of the 1890s|
|juggernaut||Jagannath ‘Lord of the World’, the title given to the Hindu god Vishnu, a huge image of whom was once carried on a huge wagon under the wheels of which devotees would throw themselves as sacrifices|
|leotard||Jules Léotard French acrobatic performer (1839-1870), who inspired the 1867 song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze|
|maverick||Sam Maverick Texas politician and rancher (1803-1870), who refused to brand his cattle|
|mesmerise||Franz Anton Mesmer, Austrian doctor (1734-1815), who propounded that the body is controlled by ‘animal magnetism’, later called hypnotism|
|Midas touch||Midas, mythical king of ancient Phrygia, who on being offered a wish by Dionysus, chose that everything he touched would turn to gold|
|nicotine||Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, brought tobacco plants from Brazil back to France in 1559. The plant was named Nicotiana tabacum, and the name for the active compound followed later|
|Oscar||An off-hand remark by a librarian employed by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about the statuettes, at the time nameless, presented to winners. She said ‘He reminds me of my Uncle Oscar’, the person allegedly being Oscar Pierce, a wheat farmer and fruit grower|
|pander||Pandare, a character in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde|
|quisling||Vidkun Quisling, Norwegian politician (1887–1945), who seized power in a Nazi-backed coup d’état. Quisling became a synonym for traitor|
|raglan||Fitzroy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan (1788-1855), commander of Lord Cardigan who led the famous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, who having lost his arm in battle, had the sleeve of his coat adapted to accommodate his missing arm|
|silhouette||Etienne de Silhouette, French politician (1709-1767), whose penny-pinching manner led to the term à la Silhouette being applied to things perceived as cheap, and this included the inexpensive art form which was becoming popular of cutting shadow profiles from black paper|
|shrapnel||Henry Shrapnel, British lieutenant-general (1761-1842), inventor of the hollow cannon ball filled with metal balls|
|tarmac||short for macadam, John Loudon McAdam, Scottish engineer (1756-1836)|
|trilby||the heroine in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894), in the stage version of which such a hat was worn|
|Turing’s machine||Alan Turing, British mathematician and cryptanalyst (1912-1954) who devised a theoretical computing machine|
|voltage||Alessandro Volta, Italian Count and physicist (1746-1827)|
|wisteria||named by botanist Thomas Nuttall who was an admirer of Caspar Wistar, American physician and early proponent of vaccination (1761- 1818) (the ‘e’ is apparently a mistake)|
|zany||Zanni, a traditional clown who wears a mask with a long, downward curving beak in 16th century Italian masked theatre Commedia dell’arte|
I’ve mentioned brillo pads a couple of times but not said where the name comes from. In the early 1900s, an American lawyer, Milton Loeb was approached by a cookware retailer and a jeweller (his brother in law) who had come up with a mixture of soap, steel wool and jeweller’s rouge to clean the newly-fashionable aluminium pans, but who lacked the money to patent the product. They offered Loeb an interest in the business and in 1913 he secured a patent for the product which he called Brillo derived from the Latin word meaning bright. By 1917, the Brillo Manufacturing Company was making steel wool pads and packaging them, five pads to a box, with a cake of soap included. Finally in the early 1930s, the company developed a method to put the soap right into the pads themselves, and the rest is history.
If you have a few hours to spare, here is a long list of eponyms with notes of their origin.