“It’s Murphy’s law.”
“Oops, Freudian slip!”
“Don’t be such a Scrooge.”
We frequently use eponyms — words that derive from names — in our everyday speech. Some are quite obviously based on a person’s name, like the examples above, but others may be common words we use all the time without realizing that they’re eponyms. If we take a closer look at the etymology of the English words in our lexicon, we’ll find some fascinating surprises.
Perhaps one of the most surprising eponyms hidden in plain sight is “boycott,” a form of protest that involves avoiding commercial or social relations with a person, business or country. The word originated in 1880s Ireland, when tenant farmers and workers’ rights groups were pushing for land reforms. Captain Charles C. Boycott was one of the land agents fighting these reforms, so the Irish Land League shunned him and convinced his servants to stop working for him. His name, however, stuck.
Whether you played the saxophone in high school band or have heard it being performed at a jazz club, you may not have known the origins of this word. The saxophone was named for its inventor, Adolphe Sax, a musical instrument designer from Belgium who wanted to combine his favorite qualities of woodwind and brass instruments into one super music-maker. Thus, the saxophone was born in the 1840s.
Nobody likes a chauvinist, but most people also don’t know that the word comes from a person’s name. “Chauvinist” dates back to the 1840s, and it was based on Nicholas Chauvin, a French soldier who glorified Napoleon and exhibited extreme ultra-nationalism, viewing the French as superior to all others. (Note: Nicholas Chauvin may never have actually existed; it is thought that he may have been a fictional character, invented to inspire patriotism.) It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term “male chauvinism” was used to describe sexism — as in men believing they are superior to women. This is the definition that stuck, and for the “male” part of the term was eventually dropped.
This game-changing technology allows people to talk on the phone hands-free, use wireless headphones and more, but “Bluetooth” is not just a cool, gimmicky name. It’s actually named after Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king of Denmark in the 900s, who was known for bringing together parts of Norway and Denmark into one country (though he was not in fact the creator of Bluetooth). In the same spirit of unification, Bluetooth was created by bringing together various companies to develop an industry standard for wireless technology.
This is a particularly cool origin story (even though the practice of drawing district lines in strange ways for political gain is not so cool). Elbridge Gerry was the governor of Massachusetts, and in 1812 he signed a redistricting bill that created a ridiculously long and thin state senate district that resembled a salamander in shape. This redistricting allowed the rival Democratic-Republican party to take power from the popular Federalist party, and it became one of the most famous redistricting cases in history. Redistricting soon came to be known as “gerrymandering,” as coined by poet Richard Aslop, a combination of the governor’s name and the salamander shape of the district.
Like chauvinist, this word for the dark outline of something was named after a French guy. Étienne de Silhouette was a French politician in the 18th century. It’s clear that the word comes from his name, but what’s less clear is the reason for it. One theory is that silhouettes were considered an inexpensive way of drawing someone, and the name was in reference to the stingy economic policies he introduced as finance minister. Another theory is that he simply enjoyed making such drawings and used them to decorate his chateau.
Nicotine, the addictive alkaloid found in tobacco, is yet another of the many English eponyms of French origin. The formal name for the tobacco plant is the Latin Nicotiana, and it was named after Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal in the 1500s who sent tobacco seeds back to France.
Don’t worry, you’re not a dunce for not knowing this word is an eponym! It’s actually named after a man who was quite intelligent: John Duns Scotus, a philosopher, linguist and theologian in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. His complex metaphysical teachings were carried on by his followers, who were called Dunsmen or Duns, long after his death. But the humanistic thought of the Renaissance brought criticism on the Duns, who often wore pointed hats because Scotus thought they would act as a funnel for knowledge. The hats, and the Duns themselves, became representative of idiocy, and soon the terms “dunce” and “dunce cap” were used to describe any fools or misbehaving children.