Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
A word that is based on or derived from someone’s name is called an eponym. And, in a symmetrical turn, an eponym is also the person after whom something is named. The word sideburns, for example, is an eponym, and so was General Ambrose Burnside.
Eponyms are legion, from the names of chemical elements (like einsteinium and curium) to plants (forsythia, magnolia) to units of measurement (volts, watts) to brand names (from Adidas to Zamboni). Most of these we recognize as eponyms right away. But not all eponyms are so obvious.
Here are nine fairly commonplace things that you might not know derive their names from real-life people.
Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was the eight- and ninth-century Persian mathematician and astronomer who is widely considered the founder of algebra. As his mathematical treatises filtered westward, his surname al-Khwarizmi (which means “of Khwarazm,” now the city of Khiva in Uzbekhistan) was transliterated (and somewhat mangled) into Medieval Latin as algorismus. This entered Old French as algorisme which, later, because of a mistaken belief that it was related to the Greek arithmos “number,” changed into algorithme, which became the English algorithm.
The word algebra itself comes from the Arabic word al-jabr in the title of al-Khwarazmi’s treatise on equations, Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala, “The Compendium on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.”
Boycotting got its name from the man against whom the first organized boycott was aimed. Charles Cunningham Boycott was hired by aristocratic land owners to collect rent from Irish tenant farmers during a famine in 1879. When he tried to evict 11 farmers for failure to pay, the Irish National Land League rallied, convincing townsfolk in the area to cut off all business with the man — even the delivery of his mail. I dug into the history of this word in much greater depth in “The First Boycott.”
Okay, so you already knew this was named after a person — but it might not be the person you think. Roman emperors have nothing to do with this salad; it was named after Caesar Cardini, the restaurant owner who created it. As the story goes, on July 4, 1924, a rush of diners to Cardini’s Tijuana restaurant put a strain on his pantry, and, out of necessity, he crafted the new salad from the ingredients he had to keep his customers full.
Before derrick referred to a structure over an oil well to support the drilling apparatus (from the 1860s) or to a crane-like construction used for hoisting heavy loads (from the 1720s), a derrick was a more specific and malevolent structure: a gallows. During the 17th century, a London executioner named Derick became so well-known — presumably because he was often in the public eye, a scary thought — that people named the gallows at Tyburn after him. Derick was also used as the name for a hangman. As public hangings became less common, the word found new uses for nonlethal support structures.
Guy is such a generic word now that it might be hard to believe that it traces back to a specific man: Guy Fawkes, who was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for his involvement in a plot to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. I wrote more about the history of guy (and of Guy Fawkes) in “Bad Guys and Good Guys.”
Named for its inventor, Jules Léotard, a popular French trapeze artist from the mid-1800s, the tight-fitting one-piece garment quickly became popular for dance, gymnastics, and other disciplines that involve a lot of movement.
The veracity of the commonly told story about the invention of nachos is questionable, but that story has taken on a near-mythological status. In many ways it mirrors the story of the first Caesar salad.
According to an article in the San Antonio Express on May 23, 1954, a restaurant in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras was running low on supplies sometime in 1940. Ignacio Anaya Garcia — a waiter, chef, or maitre d’ who had hungry diners to satisfy — came up with a new dish from the foods he had on hand. Ignacio’s nickname was Nacho.
The story may be apocryphal — and we may never know for certain — but one surprising fact shouldn’t be overlooked: Nachos were invented in the early 1940s. The first modern World Series was held in 1903. That means baseball fans attended nearly four decades of World Series playoffs without being able to buy nachos at the snack bar.
The tobacco plant genus Nicotiana was named for the French ambassador to Portugal who, in 1561, sent tobacco seeds and powdered leaves to France. The name of the poison in tobacco leaves, nicotine, was then derived from the scientific name in the early 1800s. His name has been going up in smoke ever since.
In 1784, then-Lieutenant George Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery invented a new type of ammunition — a hollow cannonball filled with lead shot, which would explode in mid-air and send hot lead in all directions. He called it “spherical case ammunition,” but when the British army in the early 1800s adopted similar ordnance, but conical instead of spherical, it and the fragments it produced took on his name.
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