Eponyms: When People Become Things

As I wrote last week the evolution of language involves multiple inputs and processes. ‘Clipped’ words often overtake their original abbreviations to take on their own identities. At times, the process goes the other way and words become elongated by being ‘topped’ and ‘tailed’ by other words to gain new meaning and identity.

Place names become words. So when you laugh at a ‘limerick’, drive a ‘limousine’, have a pet ‘alsatian’ or ‘labrador’, play ‘badminton’ or ‘rugby’ or run a ‘marathon’, you are in fact invoking the name of a place that has become synonymous with the object or activity.

Place names may also become easily identifiable product names; as in drinks—Martini, Cognac, Bourbon; or food as in Hamburgers and Frankfurters. 

It is not just names of places but also names of people that have become words in their own right. Today when we use the words, we immediately visualize the object, without having the faintest idea that there was a person that originally gave his or her  name to the thing.

For example the cardigan was named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The woollen garment is modelled after the close-fitting knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war. The macintosh (or the Englishman’s ubiquitous waterproof coat) was named for Charles Macintosh who invented the waterproofing process that was used in the material for these raincoats. The sandwich is named for an 18th century English aristocrat, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who, as the story goes, ordered his valet to bring him a piece of meat tucked between two slices of bread, so that he would not have to get up from the gambling table for a formal meal.

Perhaps the more commonly known eponyms are the botanical names of plants, many being named after their discoverers. An interesting double link is to be found in the word Nicotine which is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum. The botanical name of the plant is derived from the name of the French ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemain, who when visiting Portugal, sent tobacco and seeds to Paris in 1560, presented it to the French King, as something that had medicinal value and protected against illness.

We may not be aware that many other terms in science and technology also reflect the names of their inventors. .

The diesel that powers our vehicles and machines is named after its German inventor-engineer Rudolph Diesel. The ampere is named for French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), who studied electromagnetism and laid the foundation of electrodynamics. Celsius is named after Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who first proposed the centigrade scale in 1742, and Fahrenheit is named for the physicist Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. The ohm (symbol: Ω) is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, is named after its discoverer German physicist Georg Ohm. And the more familiar term watt, a unit of electrical power, is named after the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.

Similarly in medicine a condition originally named after the doctor who first described it, becomes over time, a noun for the condition. Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr Alois Alzheimer a German psychiatrist and neurologist who first analysed the brain of a woman who had an unusual mental condition and studied the changes in the brain that caused the issues. Similarly Parkinson’s disease is named after Dr James Parkinson who described the condition in 1817. Today it is commonplace to describe a patient suffering from these diseases as simply having Alzheimers or Parkinsons.

All these are examples of eponyms. An eponym is a person, place, or thing after whom or which someone or something is, or is believed to be, named.

There is one other form of eponym. These are words that were initially the name of a particular brand but now are used to reference entire categories of things. One of the most popular eponyms is a band-aid. While band-aid is the name of the brand that makes adhesive bandages, most people use the term to refer to any adhesive bandage, regardless of who makes it. In India at one time Cadbury was the eponym for any chocolate!

And then there is the world of high fashion where people wear Dior, spray Chanel, carry Prada, and travel with Louis Vuitton! Bata is eponymous in India with sturdy, reasonably priced footwear, and generally thought of as a truly India brand. It is interesting that, in fact, the brand was named after Tomas Bat’a who along with his brothers started a family owned business in Czechoslovakia in 1894 to produce sturdy and affordable shoes.. However, I have not met anyone who proudly says “I am the proud owner of a Bata!”