Some words get their names from people, and when they do, the stories are usually fascinating.
An eponym is a word that’s based on a person’s name.
For example, Adolphe Sax was a Belgian instrument maker who brought a new instrument to a Victorian event in 1851 called The Great Exhibition. His main job was making flutes and clarinets, and his invention, which looks like something of a mash-up of those two instruments, was dubbed the “Saxophone.”
Other things that were named after people that you might know about include:
- Braille, the language of raised dots that blind people can use to read, invented by Louis Braille
- Scientific terms like Fahrenheit, Celsius, pasteurize, ampere, ohm, volt, and watt, all named after famous scientists
- Terms we’ve covered before in the podcast or in my books, like guillotine, teddy bear, and bowdlerize.
The guillotine was named after Joseph Guillotin, who was opposed to the death penalty but lobbied for the device to be used for beheadings during the French Revolution because it was more humane. Teddy bears were named after US president Teddy Roosevelt after he refused to shoot a cute, captive bear on a hunting trip. Bowdlerize came from Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet, who liked to edit words they found offensive out of Shakespeare's writing.
Today, I have more interesting eponym stories, including stories from our listeners.
[From a listener] “Hi. My name is Biddy, and I'm in North Carolina. I have two family words that we've used all our lives. One is “Estelle” as a verb. We had a maid whose name was Estelle. She always like to stack things up to make the room look neat … and my father started asking where something was, and then when he couldn't find it, he would say, “It's been Estelled,” which means the maid hid it in a pile of papers. and my brother actually grew up and became an adult, and he was in college, and he use that verb, and he realized it was just in our family that we used it.”
Here’s one you’ll find in the dictionary that you may not have known was named after a person: cardigan. It was named after the Earl of Cardigan, who was very particular about everything related to his military unit, from drills and rules to his uniforms. In the famous battle of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War in the 1850s, he wore a blue knitted waistcoat trimmed with gold. When he returned from the war, he was hailed as a hero, and his style of waistcoat became popular. Later, it came out that his performance in the war bordered on incompetent, but by then, it seems the sweater and the name cardigan had stuck.
With the industrial revolution, it became easier to make knitted clothes. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel made the cardigan something women could wear too. Fashion historians say she embraced the design because she didn’t like messing up her hair by pulling on a regular sweater. But although Chanel may have expanded the market for the button-up sweater, we owe to name to Lord Cardigan.
[From a listener] “Hi. This is Heidi Delander, née Linderd, from originally [unintelligible] Wisconsin, and I have a familect story about my family, the Linerds, who lived in [unintelligible]. We have a family verb which is 'to Judy.' My mother's name is Judy, and she always had little snacks like crackers and bread sticks in her purse and also things like napkins and the little single package hand wipes from restaurants, and many other things, and whenever we were some place that had these free small things, think shampoo at a hotel or soap from the hotel, she would take some extra and throw them in her purse. So we started calling that 'Judying,' as a verb, and for 40 years we have continued to use that term. For example, 'Let's Judy some of those plastic utensils for our picnic,' or 'Oh, there she goes Judying again,' and we still use that and actually have had some extended family members begin to use the term—people that know my mom—and it's pretty funny when people hear us talking about 'Judying' things. They’re not really too sure what to make of that. So, that's my familect story.”
Thanks, Heidi! And you may have noticed at the beginning of her message, she used the word “née.” It was a little hard to hear, so I might not have it exactly right, but it sounded like “Heidi Delander, née Linderd.” So if you’re wondering what that means …
Née is a direct borrowing from French where the word means “born.” You put it before a name to indicate that it was someone’s previous name or title. For example, my maiden name is Coughlin. If that mattered, you could refer to me as Mignon Fogarty, née Coughlin. It’s doesn’t have to be a personal name though; it could be something else. Here’s an example from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Royal Dutch Shell and Arco (BP, née British Petroleum) are European companies.” So essentially, they’re saying “BP, born British Petroleum, but now know as BP.”
I bet a lot of you didn’t know that nicotine is named after Jean Nicot, a trusted notary of the French royal family in the 1500s and the writer of one of the first French dictionaries. During his travels as the French ambassador to Portugal, he received a plant that had originated in what is now Florida in the United States. He saw that the powder from the plant greatly improved users’ moods, and he believed it had powerful healing properties. Knowing of the foul disposition and migraines of Catherine de Médici, he sent her some powdered leaves and she loved it, dubbing it “ambassador’s powder.” It made its way around Europe, becoming a popular thing to sniff with both royalty and the clergy, who also gave it the nickname “Father Superior’s powder.” Nicot began importing large quantities of tobacco to France, which gave him both fortune and fame. About 150 years after his death, the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus gave the tobacco plant the botanical name “Nicotiana.” And when the active chemical was isolated in 1828, scientists named it “nicotine.”
[From a listener] "My name is Amy. I live in Northridge, California, and I have a familect story. My mother-in-law was famous, or infamous, in our family for serving dessert right after dinner whether you wanted it or not. About a year ago, my youngest daughter, who is now 27, started saying that she was gonna 'Mama Jan it,' because Mama Jan was what we called her grandmother, so she ... if you're in my family, if you're gonna 'Mama Jan' something, it means you're gonna have dessert right after dinner. And that's my story.”
Here’s another one I didn’t know before, but I’ve seen it popping up more lately: "quisling." This one comes from Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who took over as head of the puppet government when the Nazis invaded and the existing government fled. Quisling was unpopular before the invasion and even less popular after. According to the book “Word People” by Nancy Caldwell Sorell, before the invasion “the Norwegian populace generally had only contempt for Quisling and indeed suspected that he was mentally unbalanced.” Further, when Quisling tried to set up a government, nobody would join. “He was ignored by everyone in authority,” both Norwegians and most Germans. For example, one time he fired the chief of the Oslo police and the Germans told the officer, "Yeah, never mind him, you’re fine." Still, he had Hitler’s support and held onto at least the illusion of power. For example, he ordered that his portrait be hung in all public buildings and put on postage stamps.
After the war, Quisling was arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad. His name lives on, though, to describe a traitor and especially someone who helps an enemy or invader. And according to Merriam-Webster, Quilsling’s name took on this meaning a few years before the end of the war, so he would have been aware that it was being used that way.
[From a listener] “Hello. My name is Dietrich, and I have a familect story for you. My family has a term called Kanoberize, which comes from a late great grandfather's surname—Kanober. This word is a verb my immediate family, and my relatives descending from him, use for whenever someone eats half of what was at one time the last whole serving of a dish. And it is usually used toward multiple people at the same time. This is a common occurrence with my relatives when they gather for their annual three-day reunion during which they eat a ton of food, whether it's lasagna, a green bean casserole, or a slice of pie, my relatives have a habit of avoiding being the one to take the last piece. We will take half of the last piece, but none of us wants to be that person known for taking the last piece of a great aunt’s dish. Because this habit is so prevalent, both at our reunions and at home, one relative, I'm not sure which one, came up with the term Kanoberize, and for about a decade it has been a common word in our vocabulary. Although the habit has been around much longer. When cleaning up after a meal and we see 1/16 of a cookie or 1 cubic inch of a pie, it is a telltale sign that multiple people have been Kanoberizing the dish. It has been very fun seeing multiple little siblings pick up the word without even knowing as origin but fully comprehending its meaning and employing the term properly in regular conversation. Thanks for your podcast and for the opportunity to share the story. ”
Dunce, which is used to describe someone who is dimwitted, comes from the name of a Scottish scholar named John Duns, who lived in the late 1200s and early 1300s, and who at school was called Duns Scotus (“Duns the Scot” in Latin). He was reportedly exceptionally smart, but became embroiled in theological controversies of the day and became known as someone who would focus on small points—a hairsplitter—which caused a derivation of his name, “dunce," to be associated with focusing on details without real wisdom. Eventually, as with so many words that see their meanings slide around, it came to mean a person who is stupid.
Leotard, the form-fitting stretchy outfit worn by athletes like gymnasts and ice skaters, comes from Jules Leotard, a 19th century trapeze artist.
Mausoleum, a large or stately tomb, comes from one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world: the massive tomb of Mausolos, who was a fourth century B.C.E. king of a region that is now in Turkey.
[From a listener] “Hey, Mignon. It's Joe Guppy from Seattle, Washington, and I really like your show. It's super fun. I also teach writing in college, Seattle Pacific University to be exact, and I love to recommend your podcast, and I love to look up stuff myself on your website or listen to your podcast to pick up tips. I wanted to give a family word to you. The word is 'gensel,' and it means to eat something directly out of the pot—mainly the remaining amount of a food that's left in the pot after you served it. When someone might hand a pot of, say, beans to another person with a little bit remaining in the bottom, and they would say, “Would you like to gensel this?” or even if they don't wanna have it themselves, they might say, “Could you gensel this for me?” This comes from my mom, and she was raised in the depression, so you consumed every bit of food. It would be a waste of money and sustenance not to eat every bit of food, that is to gensel everything out of the pot. Now, where does this come from? Well, it comes from their— my mom's nextdoor neighbor, whom she could see across the the courtyard in Chicago through a window when my dad was getting his PhD in Chicago. Her name is Mrs. Gensel, and Mrs. Gensel, whenever she was doing the dishes, would gensel a lot of food out of the dishes that she was doing or preparing to do. So that's where that came from. 'Can you gensel this bit of food for me?' Keep up the good work.”
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Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."