Eponyms (Part 1)

Many common words in English derive from people’s names.  The term EPONYM refers to the name of a person that has become so closely associated with a particular object or attribute, that the name now stands for the object or attribute itself.


The word boycott, for example, comes from Charles C. Boycott, a Protestant English landowner in Ireland during the late nineteenth century. Irish peasants often resented these English “land-grabbers” and attempted to ostracize them from the community.


Charles C. Boycott

Charles C. Boycott


“When people ostracize a land-grabber we call it social excommunication,” said James Redpath, an American journalist, to Father John O’Malley in the 1880s, “but we ought to have a different word for a landlord or agent like Boycott . . . ostracism won’t do. The peasantry won’t understand.” Father O’Malley thought for a moment and replied, “How would it do to call it to boycott him?” And the word caught on.


Another eponym comes from a prominent English barrister who lived in Spanish Town, Jamaica, during the early 1800s named Fitzherbert Batty. Always eccentric, Batty was eventually certified insane in 1839. London newspapers made much of the incident at the time. Ever since then, the term batty has been used to describe anyone who is harmlessly crazy.


Nicolas Chauvin, said to have been a soldier in the army of the First Republic, idolized Napoleon and praised him endlessly. His extreme devotion became the source of many jokes, and now anyone fanatically patriotic or rigidly convinced of the superiority of his own group is said to be a chauvinist.


Shrapnel refers to the metal fragments or bullets thrown out by an exploding shell. The first explosive shell filled with shrapnel was used against the Dutch in Surinam. The shell was then called a “spherical case shot” and consisted of a round container filled with gunpowder and musket balls. An Englishman, Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel, invented the device about 1802.


Henry Shrapnel

Henry Shrapnel


Etienne de Silhouette served as finance minister under Louis XIV and was a favorite of Madame de Pompadour. During only four months in office he levied such heavy marriage, income, and sales taxes that people had to get by with the barest essentials—hence the silhouette, a portrait reduced to its barest essentials.




Then there was the plumber of Thorne, England, who, in the late nineteenth century, invented the first commercially available flush toilet. Up until then, people used chamber pots and close stools. The name of the plumber was Thomas Crapper.  He  marketed his convenient device under the label “Crapper’s Valveless Water Waste Preventer,” quickly shortened by the public to the inventor’s last name.


Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper


Sometime in the 1960s, Edith Crapper, an artist and descendent of Thomas, acknowledged the difficulty in “trying to make the name Crapper famous as an artist rather than a cistern.”


Thomas Crapper and Co.


Other noteworthy eponyms include the following:


Guillotine. Instruments used to behead people by means of a weighted blade that slides down vertical posts had long been employed in Scotland, Germany, and some eastern countries before being introduced into France by Dr. Antoine Louis in the late eighteenth century. The device, therefore, was called in France a louisette. During the French Revolution, a member of the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Joseph Ignace-Guillotin, urged the new government to adopt the louisette as a swift and humane means of carrying out executions. Throughout the months of June and July of 1792, when the Reign of Terror was at its height, more than a thousand people lost their heads to the device that was quickly renamed the guillotine, much to the horror and regret of Dr. Guillotin.


Dr. Guillotin

Joseph Ignace-Guillotin


Fallopian tubes. The tubes conducting eggs from the ovaries to the uterus were named for the sixteenth century Italian professor of anatomy at Pisa, Gabrielle Falloppio.



Gabrielle Falloppio


Oscar. The Motion Picture Academy was founded in Hollywood in 1927, the same year it began awarding the ten-inch, seven-pound golden statuette for “outstanding performance in the various fields of the motion picture industry.”


Oscar statue


For the first four years of its existence, the statuette had no name. But in 1931, when Margaret Herrick, later the secretary of the Academy, first saw the golden figure, she remarked that it “reminds me of my Uncle Oscar.” She referred to Oscar Pierce, a Texas rancher, who apparently had no connection with, or interest in, the cinema. A newspaper columnist, however, overheard Ms. Herrick’s remark and wrote in his next column, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”


July and August. In ancient Roman times, the lunar calendar consisted of ten months—March through December—and 304 days. During the reign of Julius Caesar, to adjust the reckoning to solar time, two more months were added—January and February. What had been the fifth month, Quintilis, Caesar renamed Julius, after himself, the month we know as July. Emperor Augustus Caesar later followed suit by renaming what had formerly been the sixth month and was now the eighth. Sextilis became Augustus, or August as we now call it.


Go to Eponyms (Part 2)


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