An eponymous kind of fame

Posted by on December 05, 2011

In a comment to my post about confusing word pairs, I said that as a child I called a pen a “biro” and a vacuum cleaner a “hoover”. I knew the terms pen and vacuum cleaner, but only later did I learn that biro was named after the Hungarian inventor László Bíró, while hoover comes from the Hoover Company – in other words, that they’re eponyms.

An eponym – back-formed from eponymous – is when something is named after a person or other proper noun. Eponym can refer to the source and to the thing named, which could be a place, action, object, description and so on. An eponymous album is one with the same name as the band, while an eponymous character or hero is one whose name appears in the title of the story, such as Emma or Oliver Twist.

The origins of some eponyms are well known, such as boycott from Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott and mesmerise from Franz Mesmer. Others are less obvious. Sandwich, panic, silhouette, algorithm and nicotine all derive from proper nouns: John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), Pan (Greek god), Etienne de Silhouette (French finance minister), al-Khwārizmī (Persian mathematician) and Jean Nicot (French diplomat who inspired the formal plant name Nicotiana).

Mentor was the name of Odysseus’ friend in The Odyssey, and the word is popular today both as a generic noun for someone who advises another, and as a verb for what they do. It also led to the adjective mentorial and the noun mentee, meaning a person who is mentored (though protégé is generally preferred).

Scientific discoveries are frequently named after their discoverer. Medical science is full of examples, while laws and principles (many of them in physics) are often eponymous. These might, however, be more accurately considered pseudo-eponyms.

Some writers’ styles and ideas have been distinctive enough to give us eponymous adjectives, for example Kafkaesque, Dickensian and Orwellian. Although these words convey a meaning associated with the writers, they have taken on a life of their own. This is especially true of sadistic and its noun form sadism, which we owe to the Marquis de Sade.

Brand names too can become so widely used that the object or activity loses its strict association with the brand. It happened to biro, escalator, yo-yo, and zipper, and it’s happening to Rollerblades and Google – both of which are still trademarks. Corporations tend to resist this trend, but over time it can be hard to prevent genericization of a successful brand name.

Eponyms are still appearing, many of them nonce words. When the celebrity Kim Kardashian’s marriage broke up rather quickly this year, comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic reportedly said: “72 Days is now an official unit of time known as a Kardash.” It’s a new eponym, but an old kind of fame – or infamy.

Comments (5)
  • We might quibble a little about which examples to put in the well known list and which not. For example, I expect the origin of “sandwich” is considerably more famous than that of “boycott”. But that argument could go on indefinitely.

    I’m trying to think of eponymous terms used here in Australia but not elsewhere in the English-speaking world. There are some generic brand names, such as “texta” for certain kinds of marker pen, and the Wikipedia page reminds me of “esky” (cooler) among others. And of course we have our share of geographical locations and biological species that are named after people.

    I take a quiet pleasure in knowing that a reply to my comment ofhelped inspire another blog post.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 6th December, 2011
  • Adrian: Thanks for indirectly inspiring this week’s post! Yes, sandwich is probably better known as an eponym than my article suggested, and boycott‘s eponymous origin might be disproportionately familiar in my part of the world. I didn’t know about textas; we call them markers here, or occasionally felt-tip pens. Sellotape is a very common eponym in Ireland (though the usage isn’t peculiarly Irish or anything). I seldom hear anyone call it sticky tape or adhesive tape.

    Posted by Stan on 6th December, 2011
  • Over here, the term “felt-tipped pen” refers only to the kind that has a very thin tip and is considered suitable (even slightly prestigious, compared to the biro) for adults to write with. The prototypical “texta” has a medium tip and is associated with childrens’ multi-coloured drawings. And at the thick-tipped end of the spectrum, there’s the “marker [pen]“, suitable for writing outdoor display signs among other things.

    Some of these boundaries are more fluid than others. We sometimes use “texta” to mean a thick-tipped marker pen, but I’ve only ever heard one person claim to have heard “texta” used for the precision instrument I’d call a felt-tipped pen.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 6th December, 2011
  • [...] http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/an-eponymous-kind-of-fame Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   Leave a comment [...]

    Posted by An eponymous kind of fame | Macmillan « English & Company on 7th December, 2011
  • [...] An eponymous kind of fame provides an overview of eponyms that mentions some of their inspirations and the areas of language in which they tend to arise: The origins of some eponyms are well known, such as boycott from Charles Boycott and mesmerise from Franz Mesmer. Others are less obvious. Sandwich, panic, silhouette, algorithm and nicotine all derive from proper nouns: John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), Pan (Greek god), Etienne de Silhouette (French finance minister), al-Khwārizmī (Persian mathematician) and Jean Nicot (French diplomat who inspired the formal plant name Nicotiana). [...]

    Posted by Preoccupied by plain language « Sentence first on 10th January, 2012
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields Notify me of follow-up comments via email