Eponyms: Did you know these words originate from names?

Dubai - Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 7:29 PM

One of the fascinating quirks of any language is the way in which proper names insinuate themselves into our vocabulary, as eponyms — when a person’s name becomes that of a place, a people, an era, or an institution, or even sometimes just a concept.

Eponym comes from the Greek eponymos, “given as a name, giving one’s name to something”. So the continents we know as North and South America are named for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), who sailed four times — in 1497, 1499, 1501, and 1503 — to the New World and whose name was placed on the map in recognition, even though Christopher Columbus had beaten him to it in 1492 (a feat the Spanish recognised by naming their major colony there Colombia). Similarly, the American capital, Washington DC, was never the residence of its eponymous first President, George Washington, but was named as a tribute to him. When you speak of the Victorian era, you are referring to the period of its eponymous monarch, Queen Victoria. The Modi government is headed by its eponymous Prime Minister, Narendra Modi; Obamacare is a health insurance scheme thus labelled for its eponymous President, Barack Obama; Thatcherism is an economic philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism named for its strident advocate, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These are all eponyms.

Eponyms are not merely useful for referring to politics. A Tudor building refers to a style made popular during the rule of its eponymous British dynasty, and a Georgian square to the eponymous King George III. The diamond pattern known as argyle plaid, used on sweaters and socks, is named for the Duke of Argyle. “Those Edwardian young men in spats” suggests the youth in question lived in the time of Britain’s first post-Victorian monarch King Edward VII. Bowler hats, then worn by those men in spats, were invented by the eponymous William Bowler. Queen Anne furniture alludes to the eponymous British monarch of the beginning of the 18th century.

Many words are so commonly used that we don’t even realise they’re eponyms. If you go berserk, you are living up to the name of a legendary Norse hero of the eighth century, Berserk, who fought with reckless fury. A skimpy women’s swimsuit that came into fashion a year after the United States began testing atom bombs on the Bikini atoll of the Marshall Islands was called a “bikini” for the explosive effect it supposedly had on men. “Bogus” comes from mispronouncing the name of a crooked counterfeiter in the mid-19th century US called Borghese, who circulated fake dollar bills. And a child born through a caesarian section is reminding us of the first such case of birth through cutting the womb, that of Julius Caesar in 100 BC.

Common household products also refer, often unknowingly, to their eponymous creators. “I’ll Hoover it up” comes from the inventor of the vacuum-cleaner that bore his name; “I need to fill up some diesel” takes its name from the eponymous German, Rudolf Diesel, who invented that fuel; “let’s take the kids on the Ferris wheel” credits the eponymous engineer who first came up with that enormous contraption to whirl seated people around for pleasure. If you want to hop into the jacuzzi, you are tipping your hat (or doffing your clothes) to an eponymous pair of Italian brothers named, you guessed it, Jacuzzi. If you slip on some leotards, there’s an eponymous French fashion designer, Jacques Leotard, you’re memorialising. And if you eat a sandwich, you are paying tribute to the inveterate gambler the eponymous Earl of Sandwich, who had the snack invented for him so he didn’t have to interrupt his card games for a meal. When I visited Sudan in the late 1970s, it was common to hear people saying “I’ll pick you up in my Tata,” without being conscious of the eponymous Indian vehicle manufacturer.

One “boycotts” people throughout the English-speaking world without knowing a thing about the eponymous Captain Boycott, an English land agent in Ireland, who evicted poverty-stricken tenant farmers who could not pay their rent and who was ostracised by all his Irish neighbours and servants as a result. I have many more examples to share.


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