One of today’s most popular food items derives its name from an eighteenth century English aristocrat.
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) was a British minister and statesman who served as Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty among other offices. During his free time he liked to gamble.
According to a French visitor to London in 1765, the earl would pass twenty-four hours at a stretch at the gaming-table “so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
Lord Sandwich enjoyed other eponymous distinctions. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he helped fund Captain James Cook’s second and third expeditions to the Pacific Ocean. In appreciation, Captain Cook named the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands) after his benefactor. Cook also gave the earl’s name to the South Sandwich Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean, Montague Island off the coast of Australia, and another Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Words like sandwich fill a particular need. They slip so quickly and easily into the language that we often don’t realize where they came from. Take the word bowdlerize. We recognize this as a form of censorship. Specifically it consists of omitting parts of a written work thought to be lewd, vulgar, or otherwise inappropriate for those of delicate sensibilities. What we may not recognize is that the word comes from an English physician and philanthropist named Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825).
Bowdler loved Shakespeare’s plays but thought that parts were too strong for the ears of women and children. He therefore conceived the notion of editing—that is, expurgating—the plays so they could be read in a family setting without causing embarrassment.
Bowdler published his work in ten volumes in 1818, calling it The Family Shakspeare. The title page clearly stated that nothing had been added, but that certain words and expressions “are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” This resulted in cutting about 10% of the original text.
The medical field is a rich source of eponyms. Some of the world’s most widespread diseases take their names from the physicians who discovered the ailments or were instrumental in combating them.
Rickets is an early example. This disease results from malnutrition—usually a deficiency of vitamin D, calcium, or phosphorus. It is most often seen in malnourished children, whose bones are not yet fully formed. John Aubrey writes in his Brief Lives that about the year 1620, in the town of Newbury, England, a practitioner of physic named Ricketts “was excellent at the Curing Children with swoln heads, and small legges: and the Disease being new, and without a name, He being so famous for the cure of it, they called the Disease Ricketts.”
Likewise, Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, takes its name from Dr. James Parkinson (1755-1824), an English surgeon, who first described and analyzed, in 1817, the symptoms of what was then called “the shaking palsy.”
English physician Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) was the first to describe, in 1832, the blood disease now known as Hodgkin’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Another English physician, John Langdon Down (1828-1896) did pioneering work in what was then called “Mongolism” but is now known as Down syndrome.
And German psychiatrist and physician Alois Alzheimer (1864-1896) did important early work in understanding the symptoms and pathology of “presenile dementia” or what we now call Alzheimer’s disease.
On a lighter note, we have Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881), a Union general during the American Civil War. His most distinguishing physical characteristic was his enormous side whiskers. Some wags began calling the whiskers burnsides, but that quickly changed to sideburns.
Finally, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896) provided amusement parks with one of their most popular and characteristic attractions, and, at the same time, gave the English language one of its most euphonious eponyms.
Ferris was a civil engineer who specialized in bridge building. In planning for the World’s Columbian Exposition, to open in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893, directors wanted something spectacular as a centerpiece that would rival the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris International Exposition four years earlier.
Ferris came up with a design for a huge rotating wheel, 264 feet high, that would carry up to 60 passengers in 36 gondolas, the wheel taking about 20 minutes to make two revolutions. People at first thought the wheel impractical and unsafe, but it proved a tremendous success. What would many amusement parks be today without a Ferris wheel?
Original Ferris wheel, 1893
Go to Eponyms (Part 1)