An eponym is a word derived from a name, or a name that becomes a word. The English language has many eponymous words, both common and obscure. Science, medicine, and the natural world are sources of many familiar eponyms.
Every educated person knows that the verb to pasteurize comes from the name of the French chemist and bacteriologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who developed the process of sterilizing by heating and rapid cooling. But did you know that the lovely climbing shrub Wisteria (wi-STEER-ee-uh) takes its name from the American anatomist Casper Wistar (1761-1818)?* And did you know that the hardy, colorful plant called poinsettia is named after an American diplomat, J.R. Poinsett (1779-1851), who brought it from Mexico to the United States in 1828? Incidentally, there is no point in poinsettia and the word is properly pronounced in four syllables, not three: poyn-SET-ee-uh.
Another eponymous scientific word that is often mispronounced is salmonella (SAL-muh-NEL-uh), which has nothing to do with salmon (SAM-un) and everything to do with Daniel E. Salmon (1850-1914), an American veterinarian and pathologist who identified this genus of bacteria and whose last name is pronounced SAL-mun.
Many flowers and plants take their names from names. One of my favorites is the beautiful woody vine called bougainvillea (BOO-gun-VIL-ee-uh), with its delicate and brilliant flowers, which is named after the French navigator and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), who fought in the United States during the Revolutionary War and discovered the Solomon Islands.
Our two methods of measuring temperature, Celsius and Fahrenheit, are both eponyms. The former comes from Anders Celsius (1701-1744), a Swedish astronomer, and the latter from Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736), the German physicist who introduced the use of mercury in thermometers. The Bunsen burner, familiar to all high school chemistry students, is named after Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811-1899), German chemist. And the word guillotine (GIL-uh-teen, not GEE-yuh-teen) is named after Joseph Guillotin, the French physician who did not invent this gruesome decapitation device but who advocated for its use as more humane than hanging.
* Are you wondering why the man’s name is spelled Wistar but the genus is spelled Wisteria? A Harvard naturalist named Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) accidentally printed Wisteria instead of Wistaria, and the mistake has since become the norm.
That was an excerpt from Word Workout by Charles Harrington Elster, reprinted here with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin. If you’d like to know more about Joseph Guillotin, we have a Grammar Girl article on the topic from a few months ago.