Eponyms — a term used to mean both a word derived from the name of a person and the person after which something is named — abound in English. For example, if you’re going to measure an electric current, you might use amperes, coulombs, joules, ohms, volts, or watts, units of measure that get their names from André-Marie Ampère, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, James P. Joule, Georg Simon Ohm, Alessandro Volta, and James Watt — every one an eponym.
Of course, eponyms aren’t limited to scientific applications like electromagnetism. We use them in our everyday language … well, every day.
Back in February 2020, I wrote about a smattering of words that you might not have known were eponyms in “9 Things You Didn’t Know Were Named after People.” Here are six more such words, along with the stories of how some people’s names found permanent places in the English language.
The source of arguably the best jam, boysenberries were named in 1935 after Rudolph Boysen, a California horticulturist who created this new delicacy. A boysenberry is a hybrid of (it is believed) blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, and loganberries. The exact combination is still a bit of a mystery because Boysen had given up on his hybridization efforts, but George Darrow of the USDA and Walter Knott (later of Knott’s Berry Farm fame) had heard about the berries and managed to recover samples of the plant from Boysen’s abandoned farm and further cultivate them.
The -y (sometimes -ie) suffix in English is often employed as a diminutive — that is, it indicates small size, physically or metaphorically. It shows up in a lot of common nouns (think horsey, fishy, and sippy cup) and also gets a lot of play in nicknames (like Petey, Charlie, and *cough* Andy).
Guppies being such tiny fish, a name that uses that diminutive suffix sounds fitting. But in this case, it’s merely a coincidence: The guppy is named for R.J.L. Guppy, a British clergyman who provided the British Museum with its first specimens of the small swimmers. The creature was assigned the scientific name Girardinus guppii — the second element derived from Guppy’s name — in 1866, but as the fish became more popular in aquariums in the 1910s, they were colloquially known simply as guppies.
For such an unpleasant concept, the number of men claimed to be the source of the word is surprising. There’s James Lynch Fitzstephen, the mayor of Galway, Ireland, who in 1493 was forced to carry out the hanging of his own son. Then there’s John Lynch, a late-18th-century Kentucky horse thief who was himself hanged. More plausible is the case of Charles Lynch, who, during the American Revolution, went outside of the law to suppress pro-British activity in the colonies. (Lynchburg, Virginia, is named for Charles’s brother John, a Quaker.)
Most likely, though, the word can be traced to William Lynch, a captain in the Virginia militia who in the 1770s created his own tribunal to arrest, try, and punish (supposed) criminals who had otherwise evaded the legitimate authorities. In 1780, Lynch and his men published a compact that actually stated their goals, arguments, and methods. This became known as Lynch’s law, and the vigilantes were called lynch-men. As the idea spread, Lynch’s law became lynch law, and these extralegal actions (in the beginning, more likely to be a tarring and feathering than a hanging) were called lynchings.
Mausolus was a fourth-century B.C. governor in the Persian Empire, ruling over lands in modern-day southwestern Turkey. He moved his capital to Halicarnassus, on the Mediterranean coast, and, hoping to secure a type of immortality, planned and began construction on his own burial monument.
After his death, his wife had to supervise its completion. In Greek called the mausoleion, for the man buried there, the monument —one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — was a white marble structure around 135 feet tall, 411 feet wide, and bounded by a colonnade of 36 columns. Its name came through Latin to become the English mausoleum to describe any large or imposing stone burial structure.
Though the structure itself is believed to have been destroyed in an earthquake during the Middle Ages, its name passing into the English lexicon in a way granted Mausolus the immortality he sought.
Ironically, the word maverick comes from the surname of a man who was not himself a maverick — in the modern sense, anyway. Samuel Maverick was a lawyer in southern Texas during the mid-19th century. One of his clients, short on cash to pay off a debt, gave him instead 400 head of cattle. No rancher himself, Maverick put them in the care of one of his men. The cattle were left unbranded and were allowed to roam free to graze.
For unscrupulous cattlemen nearby, these unbranded cattle were an opportunity. They burned their own brand into the beasts and then brought them in with their own herd — outright theft. From Maverick’s cattle came the idea of a maverick as any unbranded cattle, a sense that spread through the West.
At the end of the 19th century, the word had acquired the sense of a masterless wanderer, often used derogatorily to describe someone who wouldn’t fall in line with expectations. But that shirking of expectations, of independence and self-reliance, was to some a sign of strength, and that is largely the sense of maverick that we use today — no longer a cow without a master who wanders aimlessly, but a cow who rejects being mastered and chooses its own direction.
Salmonella gets its name from a Salmon, but not the type that swims upstream and tastes great grilled on a cedar plank. In fact, the name has nothing at all to do with fish. This genus of bacteria got its name from the veterinary surgeon who in 1885 first isolated the microbe: Daniel E. Salmon. The New Latin genus Salmonella was coined by Joseph Lignières in 1900, and by 1913 the ailment was being called salmonella by the general public.
Featured image: Shutterstock / ksb
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Yes, a LOT of plants are named after people. Magnolia, wisteria, poinsettia, begonia. The horticulturist William Forsyth, for whom the forsythia is named, is a direct ancestor of mine.
If you’re interested in flower names, you should read “An Anthology of Summer Blooms,” though there’s more in here than eponyms: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2021/08/in-a-word-an-anthology-of-summer-blooms/
Add Bougainvilea to your plants.
From a Frenchman called Bougainville who travelled in the Pacific islands and gave his name to one of them.
I actually have written about a couple of these in previous columns. “Boycott” appears in “9 Things You Didn’t Know Were Named after People” (https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2020/02/in-a-word-eponyms-9-things-you-didnt-know-were-named-after-people/). And back in December 2018, I wrote “German Chocolate Cake Isn’t” (https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/12/in-a-word-german-chocolate-cake-isnt/).
Eventually, I will get around to mesmerism and hypnotism, their histories, differences, and, of course, etymologies. I thought I had already done poinsettias, but apparently I haven’t. I will add it to the list of possibilities!
German chocolate cake is sort of an eponym, in that it was named after a fellow whose last name was German. The confection isn’t named after the country.
Among other words that don’t come immediately to mind, “poinsettia”, “mesmerize”, “silhouette”, and “boycott” are named after people.
That’s no pony in the opening photo! I think it’s goat, but not the ears. Not sure. I love it nonetheless. These are interesting words. I’ve heard for years it was Walter Knott that ‘invented’ the boysenberry. Maybe it’s because I live relatively close to Knott’s Berry Farm? No trip there is complete without stopping at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant and buying several jars of that wonderful jam! Still, I’m embarrassed I’d never heard of Rudolph Boysen before. Just never thought about it, Andy.
Guppy is interesting too. I’m glad my last name isn’t Lynch—not that there’s anything wrong with it other than being related to you know, (lynchings), in these sensitive-to=everything times. Mausoleum having roots going back to the 4th century B.C., with Greek roots no less. The word sounds like it would have had a French connection.
So Maverick has purely American roots only going back to the 19th century. Now I’m thinking James Garner should have driven a Maverick on ‘The Rockford Files’ instead of that Firebird. Salmonella is another relatively new word. It’s lucky that the word didn’t ruin the reputation of salmon otherwise.