An eponym is a word named after a person. Some, like algebra, are well-known. But these words are also eponyms: boysenberry, cardigan, diesel, guy, Kiribati, neanderthal, orrery, and pamphlet.
So a couple of days ago I was reading John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, and one of the characters noted that the word orrery – which describes a mechanical model of the solar system – is an eponym. That’s true, the orrery was named after a famous patron of the sciences called Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery. Yesterday my wife and I were watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and there’s a press photographer in that film named Paparazzo. I thought that was a bit obvious for Fellini, and I was right: the paparazzi are named for that character, not the other way around. These two surprises set me searching for other surprising eponyms. Here are the highlights:
Boysenberry, named after Charles Rudolph Boysen, the botanist who (possibly) first hybridized raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, and loganberries. Loganberry is also an eponym, by the way.
Cardigan, named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who famously led the Charge of the Light Brigade and wore one; supposedly his coat-tails were burned off because he stood too close to a fire. Sounds pretty typical for old James. The place-name itself comes from an Anglicization of a Welsh king Ceredig.
Diesel, after the inventor Rudolf Diesel. His death is an interesting mystery, but I’ll save that for another time.
Guy. Okay, this one blew my mind a bit. Guy Fawkes, the revolutionary who tried to blow up the English parliament, is vilified in Guy Fawkes Day. Traditionally, an effigy named the guy is burned on a bonfire – and that’s where our modern word comes from. Crazy.
Kiribati. This small Pacific nation is named after the British explorer Thomas Gilbert, who was the first Westerner to find the islands. If you transliterate Gilbert into the local language, which is sometimes called Gilbertese, you get Kiribati.
Neanderthal is named after the Neandertal Valley in Germany where their remains were first found, but that valley was named after a famous hymn writer Joachim Neander (he wrote Praise to the Lord, the Almighty). I wonder how he would feel about that connection?
Pamphlet is named for a character in a medieval play, Pamphilus De Amore – the play was distributed in cheap codices that gave rise to the modern word.
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