Word Play: Eponyms

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, April 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Speaking of names, our George Grant is going to tell us about names that take on whole new meanings over time.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: What do sandwiches and sideburns, boycotts and bloomers, martinis and mausoleums all have in common? Well, the same thing that knickers and Nikes, fedoras and Fabians, derbies and derringers have in common. They are all eponyms.

Eponyms are names that have, over time, become familiar words. So, for example:

John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, unwilling to leave the betting table during an all-night gambling session in 1762, called for some cured meat and sliced bread to be served, thus inventing fast food.

Ambrose Everett Burnside, a Union General in the Civil War, popularized his unique mutton chop side whiskers.

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an estate holder in County Mayo, Ireland whose unrelenting cruelty caused his tenant farmers to refuse to work his land.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was a nineteenth century suffragette who devised a loose pantaloon for liberated ladies.

Depending on which story you believe, martinis are named for either the New York bartender Raoul Martinez, or for the Italian vermouth distiller, Alessandro Martini.

And, mausoleums are named for the tomb of King Mausolus of Caria, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Meanwhile, knickers are named for Washington Irving’s pseudonymous chronicler of the history of New York, and Nikes are named for the mythic Greek goddess of victory.

Fedoras are named for the tragic Russian theatrical character, Fedora Romanoff, and Fabians took the moniker of a famous general during the Punic Wars, Quintus Fabius Maximus.

The 12th Earl of Derby established two classic horse racing events, and the Philadelphia gunsmith, Henry Derringer, pioneered a diminutive pocket pistol.

The word eponym came into English usage sometime during the third decade of the nineteenth century.  It is derived from the Greek word, eponymos, where epi, means “from or after” and onyma, means “name.” So, an eponym is simply something that is “named after” another thing.

Word stories abound in every eponym: think of amazon and ammonia, amp and aphrodisiac, assassin and atlas. Or, there is babble and balaclava, Bedlam and begonia, behemoth and blurb. There is calypso and cant, cartesian and Celcius, chartreuse and chauvinism. And that’s just the beginning of the As, the Bs, and the Cs.

As I write this on my Macintosh, I’m wearing Levi’s and a cardigan. Really! I’m snacking on Graham Crackers and drinking tea from a Mason Jar. Eponyms are everywhere! Alas, as mesmerizing as all this is, I’m going to have to put my John Hancock on this piece and bring its quixotic quest to an ignominious end.

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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