These 5 words are actually derived from proper names of people

If “blurb” seemed an unlikely eponym, so too does “candy”, which traditional linguists believe is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharidakah

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:26 PM

A few weeks ago, I shared some eponyms with readers — words derived from the proper names of people — but so many eponyms come with interesting stories attached that I felt one column didn’t do it justice.

This thought was prompted by yet another request from a budding author for a “blurb” for their book — a few lines of praise for its contents which, printed on the cover, might encourage prospective readers to buy their book. Few authors realise, however, that the term for this puffery is derived from a fictional character, Belinda Blurb, invented by a rather whimsical writer named Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) for one of his books. Burgess is best known for a piece of light verse: — “I never saw a Purple Cow/never hope to see one;/But I can tell you anyhow,/I’d rather see than Be one” — which was so extensively quoted that he disavowed it with another: “Ah, yes I wrote the Purple Cow/I’m sorry now, I wrote it!/But I can tell you anyhow/I’ll kill you if you quote it!” (Many an author, coerced or seduced into giving a generous blurb to an undeserving volume, would echo those last sentiments).

If “blurb” seemed an unlikely eponym, so too does “candy”, which traditional linguists believe is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharidakah. This is disputed, however, by those who trace the term instead to Prince Charles Phillipe de Conde, infant grandnephew of King Louis XIII of France in the late 1600s. The young royal was apparently excessively fond of sweets and ate nothing but sugary confections, prompting the royal chef to start glazing meat, vegetables and fruit with sugar in the hope of getting the toddler prince to eat more nourishing food. The success of this experiment led to sweet snacks being called “Conde” after him, rendered popularly as “candy”. (Take this with a pinch of salt rather than sugar, in my view.)

Another unlikely eponym is “hooligan”, which it turns out, refers to an actual person, an obstreperous Irishman called Patrick Hooligan, who in the 1890s harassed, assaulted and robbed the good citizens of Southwark, England. His rowdy behaviour ended up immortalising his name, though the eponymous goon himself was sentenced to life and died in prison.

Similar lawlessness applies to another eponym, “lynch” — when a mob, claiming to act on behalf of public opinion, exacts vigilante retribution against an accused offender, often by hanging the victim. The word “lynch”, like “boycott” and “macadam”, comes from the name of a person. In this case, there are at least two possible claimants for this eponymous distinction. The expression derives from the American Lynch law of 1811, covering punishment without trial, named after either William Lynch (1742-1820) of Virginia, who in 1780 led a vigilance committee to keep order in his home town of Pittsylvania during the American Revolution, or Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a pro-revolutionary Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned British loyalists in his district without trial at about the same time, and got a law passed by the American government exonerating him for his actions.

Our final story of the week is about “nicotine”, that poisonous substance that comes from tobacco. It is named for Jean Nicot (1530-1600), who was sent to Portugal in 1559 by King Francis II of France to arrange a child marriage (between the king’s sister, Marguerite of Valois, six years old, and Don Sebastian, the king of Portugal, age five). Nicot’s negotiations failed, and the proposed marriage fell through, but while in Portugal, Nicot was given a gift of strange seeds by sailors who had recently come from America. From the seedlings he grew tobacco leaves and sent some to Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, who crumbled the dry leaves and enjoyed sniffing them. Tobacco soon became fashionable, as others followed the queen’s example. The French government realised the new commodity could be taxed and tobacco soon became a lucrative source of revenue, right to the present day. The scholarly Nicot had hoped to be remembered for his crowning achievement, a dictionary of the French language, but instead his name was immortalised for the toxin that comes from tobacco, nicotine — a word, ironically, that he had not included in his own dictionary!

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