A few weeks ago, I had a lighthearted discussion with a friend about my abiding fascination with unusual words and their etymologies (that is, their origin, history, and development) and told the story of how I once wowed my classmates in high school when I told them “macadamize” was another word for “tar,” that is, to coat a stretch of land, usually a road, with a dark, coarse, heavy substance to make vehicular movement smooth.
My classmates were even more tickled when I shared my discovery that “macadamize” is derived from “macadam,” which is derived from the name of a person.
As I shared the story with my friend, I remembered three other common English words that are derived from the names of people: bowdlerize, chauvinism, and mesmerize. As I kept remembering more such words, I said to myself: I can actually write a full column on eponyms, as grammarians call everyday words that are derived from the names of actual persons or places.
In order to come up with more words, I searched on Google to see if anyone has compiled a list of English words in common usage that are derived from names of historical personages. I was looking specifically for words that are so integrated into English vocabulary that everyday speakers of the language hardly have any clue that they were not considered “real” words a couple of years back. Then I came across alphadictionary.com, a truly fascinating site that has, in my opinion, one of the most impressive lists of English eponyms.
What follows is a list of my 30 favorite English eponyms. The list is inspired as much by my recollections of my fascination with etymologies in high school as it is by the great work in alphadictionary.com.1. Algorithm. Many people, especially scientists, know this word as the formula or procedure for calculations. As a new media scholar, I relate to the word as the mysterious formula by which search engines rank pages on the Internet, as in: “Google’s search algorithms.” It even has a cute adjectival inflection (algorithmic) and an even cuter adverbial inflection (algorithmically).
Well, “algorithm” is derived from the name of a Muslim scientist by the name of Abu AbdallahMu?ammadibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who lived from780 to 850 in what is now Iraq and who had the distinction of being the pioneer of the branch of mathematics called “algebra,” itself derived from an Arabic word that means “restoration.” Alphadictionary.com refers to him an “Arabic mathematician, born in Baghdad, who showed that any mathematical problem, no matter how difficult, could be solved if broken down into a series of smaller steps (an algorithm).”
Although Alphadictionary identifies him as an “Arabic mathematician,” he was actually Persian, that is, he shared the same linguistic and cultural identity with present-day Iranians. “Al-Khwarizmi” ended up as “algorithm” because Arabs pronounced it “Al-Khwarithmi,” which Western scholars in turn rendered as “algorithm.”
2. Biro. This common word for pen in Britain and most Commonwealth countries, including Nigeria, is the last name of a Hungarian inventor who invented the object“that has a small metal ball as the point of transfer of ink to paper.” He was born in 1900 and died in 1985. His full name is Biro LaszloJozsef. In Hungary, people’s last names are written first. So a Western rendering of his name would beLaszlo Jozsef Biro.
3. Braille. This word can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means“a point system of writing in which patterns of raised dots represent letters and numerals” to help blind people read. It can be used as a verb to mean transcribe a piece of writing into braille, as in: he brailled the note so his blind friend could read it.
The word is derived from Louis Braille, a French educator and musician who became blind when he was only three years old and who later went on to invent a system of writing and printing that is used all over the world by the blind. He was born in 1809 and died in 1852.
4. Bowdlerize. To bowdlerize is to remove parts (of a novel, article, TV program, etc.) that are considered undesirable or unsuitable. The word’s synonyms are “expurgate,” “edit out,” “shorten,” etc. It is sometimes used in place of “censor.” The noun form of “bowdlerize” is “bowdlerization.”
It’s derived from the name of a British medical doctor by the name of Thomas Bowdler(1754 -1825) who is famous for publishing a heavily edited, family-friendly, multi-volume version of William Shakespeare’s works, which he titled The Family Shakspeare [sic]. (Until fairly recently, Shakespeare was spelled without “e” after “k”). He edited out violent scenes, removed passages referring to sex, deleted all fictional representations of prostitutes, and replaced curse words with more children-friendly exclamations, etc. in all of Shakespeare’s works. He did a similar thing for Edward Gibbon’s iconicDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published a year after Bowdler’s death.
Thus, to bowdlerize is to clean up a passage, an article, a book, a broadcast program, etc., to make it acceptable to a section of people. The process of doing that is called bowdlerization.
5. Boycott. This common word for refusing to have anything to do with something or somebody is derived from the name Charles C. Boycott (1832–97), a ruthless “English estate manager in Ireland, against whom nonviolent coercive tactics were used in 1880,” according to Alphadictionary.com. The Times, the popular British daily newspaper is credited with being the first to use the term “boycott” to mean social isolation of an oppressor. The “b” in “boycott” used to be capitalized to indicate that it was the name of a person. Or it had quotation marks around it to show that it was not standard usage. Over the years, however, the capitalization and quotation marks were dropped, and the word became entrenched in English lexicon first as a verb and later as a noun.
6. Chauvinism. This word for zealously unreasoning belief in the superiority of a group of people is traceable to Nicolas Chauvin, “a French soldier in Napoleon’s army famous for his fanatical devotion to the Emperor.” Born around 1780, he was said to have enlisted in the French army at 18 and got wounded more times during war than any French soldier, leaving him with permanent physical deformities. His uncommon devotion to his country became the subject of derision and revulsion only after Napoleon Bonaparte and his political philosophy (which Chauvin passionately believed in and stoutly defended) fell into disfavor with the French public. From then on, chauvinism acquired a pejorative connotation. Other derivatives of chauvinism are chauvinist, chauvinistic, chauvinistically.
7. Casanova. Alphadictionary.com’s entry on this word is worth reproducing verbatim: “A philanderer, gigolo, an irresponsible lover who has many affairs with women. Giovanni Jacopo Casanova (1725-1798), Italian charlatan and social climber, who wrote several books, translated the Iliad but is most notorious for his History of my Life, which focuses on his many romantic conquests.”
8. Diesel. I had no idea that diesel, the thick, greasy oil that powers engines, was derived from the name of a person. It’s named after its inventor identified as Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (1858-1913), who was a French-born German engineer.
To be continued