Etymology can disclose fascinating stories surrounding the origin or evolution of words. Some of the most captivating accounts are related to eponyms – common nouns derived from proper nouns, i.e. names of (real or imaginary) persons or places. These may be words we use every day, so well integrated in the language that we couldn’t suspect that once they were just somebody’s name. But it is these words which do not allow the characters that hide behind them to be forgotten, telling their story and thus helping them survive within syllables. You may find below a few English eponyms the stories of which are worth telling, not only due to their interesting development, but also because they remind us of special real-life characters. Discover how they were created, who they stand for and other surprising facts, such as the relationship between present-day television and Louis XIV of France, or between sandwiches and gambling.

Next time you need a smoke, take a moment to think about Jean Nicot (1530-1600), a French diplomat and scholar: both the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabaccum) and nicotine, the colorless toxic substance in the plant which contributes to smoking addiction, were named after him. Between 1559 and 1561, Nicot served as French ambassador in Lisbon, Portugal, where he received and planted some tobacco seeds in the embassy gardens. Tobacco, only snuffed at the time, was used in Spain and Portugal, but virtually unknown to the rest of Europe. Although he was not the first to introduce the plant in France, Nicot actively promoted the use of tobacco, praising its medicinal properties. He sent powdered leaves to Catherine de’ Medici, to treat the migraines of her son, the young King Francis II. The Queen Mother and the French elite instantly became tobacco converts. So did the Father Superior of Malta, who shared tobacco with his monks. Nicot’s service to the royal family brought him a title (he became seigneur de Villemain) and eternal celebrity: tobacco became wildly popular in France and was called “Nicot’s weed” or “the Queen’s weed”. In 1752, botanist Carl Linnaeus chose his name to designate the plant genus in the binomial nomenclature. Nicot is also known for having compiled the first large corpus of French-Latin dictionaries, an essential work for French lexicography.

Another important historical figure whose name is now used on a daily basis is John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). According to his biographer, due to the Earl’s commitments to the navy, politics and arts, the first sandwich is likely to have been eaten at his desk. However, the popular version of the story, first recorded in a 1770 travel book, depicts Montagu as an inveterate gambler, who ordered his valet to bring him cold meat between two slices of bread at the gaming table. This allowed him to neither interrupt marathon sessions for a proper meal, nor get the cards greasy while eating with his bare hands. Essentially, the British statesman was not the inventor of the sandwich, previously known as ‘bread and meat’ or ‘bread and cheese’: a 17th century description of Dutch taverns mentions beef hanging from rafters “which they cut into thin slices and eat with bread and butter laying the slices upon the butter”. However, the Earl’s social status turned the dish into a culinary trend: people began to order “the same as Sandwich”, and it was gradually adopted as a late-night meal by British aristocracy, becoming truly popular with the rise of the working class in the 19th century as an inexpensive and fast type of food.

As First Lord of Admiralty, Montagu was a great supporter of Captain James Cook, who named the Sandwich Islands (currently Hawaiian Islands) and the South Sandwich Islands (located in the southern Atlantic) after him. The title Earl of Sandwich stems from the town in Kent, England, whose Old English name, Sandwicæ, literally means “trade center on sand”.

A two-version story is also part of the etymology of maverick. We usually think of a maverick as either a nonconformist, lone dissenter, or a risk-taking loose cannon. During the US presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, acclaimed as a “political maverick” of the Republicans, the popularity of the word escalated, but its original meaning, still in use in Southwestern U.S., was that of unbranded cattle that strayed from the herd, easily associated with persons who rebel against accepted ideas. You may have known this, but do you know how unbranded cattle came to be called “mavericks”? It all comes down to one man: Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), a Texas lawyer, politician and land baron who did not burn his cattle for identification purposes, against the habit of the time.

In one version of the story, Maverick’s opposition to animal cruelty was regarded as independent mindedness by fellow ranchers, hence the current meaning of the common noun, although some suspected his refusal was actually a method to claim any unbranded cows. According to his son, however, Maverick did not refuse branding, he simply neglected it because he was not interested in ranching. In 1845 he unwillingly became the owner of 400 head of cattle, in payment of a debt, and left them in the care of an African American family, who only branded about one third of the animals, and often let them wander away. Ranchers in the area took advantage of their carelessness and burned their own brands into the unmarked cattle or “mavericks”. Maverick’s cattle were eventually sold, but the word stuck, and so did the linguistic influence of the family: the lawyer’s grandson, U.S. Congressman Maury Maverick, was the first to use the term gobbledygook in 1944.

Sometimes the relationship between a common noun and the person whose name it bears is not as straightforward, because the history of the word involves several stages in which it had different meanings, each engendering the next. For instance, the small microphone you see on TV, attached to the clothing of performers or speakers in order to allow hands-free operation, is called lavalier (also known as lav, lapel mic or clip mic). What is the relationship between this device and the eponymous 17th century duchess? The first lavalier microphones, which were hung from the neck in the 1930s, were named after a type of jewelry: in English, a lavalier(e) is also an ornamental pendant, usually with one stone or chandelier drop, worn on a chain around the neck. In its turn, this meaning seems to be derived from the French use of the term, designating a “floppy neck tie tied to form a bow at the front of the neck”. This kind of tie was associated by 19th century painters with one of its most famous promoters: Louise Françoise de La Baume Le Blanc, Duchess of La Vallière (1644-1710).

Louise became the mistress of French King Louis XIV at the age of 17. She was reportedly a religious girl, neither extravagant nor interested in money and titles. Although initially chosen as a diversion from the dangerous flirtation between Louis and his sister-in-law, Louise and the King soon fell in love. Their affair lasted six years and yielded four children, two of which did not survive infancy. She was eventually replaced by her friend Madame de Montespan, and forced to live with the King and his new mistress, being the godmother of their first daughter. The strain of her new life caused Louise to become increasingly haggard and attempt to flee the palace; it was only after years of suffering that she was allowed to enter a convent. Louise’s nephew, the duke of La Vallière, who was a famous bibliophile, is the source of French adjective lavallière, designating the dead-leaf color of certain book covers.

Another case where the common noun and the proper name it derives from seem hard to relate is that of dunce, which refers to “a person who is stupid or slow to learn”, and John Duns Scotus (c. 1265 – 1308), one of the most important philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages, referred to as Doctor Subtilis due to his penetrating thought and subtle distinctions. His works were university textbooks from the 14th century, influencing both Catholic and secular thought. Duns was beatified in 1993 and was the founder of Scotism, a particular form of Scholasticism, which flourished into the 17th century in Catholic Europe. The scholar’s name comes from Duns, the Scottish town where he was born.

How did the meaning of the common noun come to oppose such merits of the eponymous scholar? This dramatic shift is attributed to 16th century Protestant humanists, who rejected Catholic medieval theology and discredited Scotus as a sophist and a hairsplitting scholastic. They started using the term dunse or dunsman, designating his followers, who opposed the new learning i.e. the King James Bible, as an insult meaning “one incapable of scholarship”. This meaning later extended to any dull-witted student and is reflected in dunce cap, designating a pointed paper hat, often marked with a D or the word dunce, formerly worn by schoolchildren as punishment for laziness or misbehavior in class.

The case of Duns Scotus illustrates the fact that authorship frequently leads to eponymy. For example, the origin of the word sadism is widely acknowledged as related to the famous Marquis de Sade, but did you know that masochism also derives from the name of a writer? Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) was an Austrian novelist and journalist, born in present-day Ukraine. His best known work is Venus in Furs, a novella whose characters and themes, such as female dominance and sadomasochism, are heavily inspired by the author’s life. In 1869, Sacher-Masoch and his mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, signed a contract which made him her slave for six months and constrained Pistor to wear furs, especially when in a cruel mood; the two traveled by train to Venice, with the Baroness in the first class, and Sacher-Masoch in a third-class compartment, disguised as a servant named “Gregor”. Their relationship is faithfully reflected in the novella, where Severin asks Wanda to treat him in increasingly degrading ways, an idea which she eagerly embraces after some hesitation, treating her new slave brutally and engaging three African women to dominate him. Severin describes his feelings during these episodes as “suprasensuality”. The term masochism was coined by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, where he describes “the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force” and writes: “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly «Masochism», because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings”.

While the link between the eponymous historical characters and the above common nouns is undisputed, in some cases there are several candidates to the origin of a word. One such term is lynch, “to put to death, especially by hanging, by mob action and without legal authority”. Its origin is traditionally traced down to Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a Virginia politician who, as head of an informal court, imprisoned Loyalist supporters of the British during the American Revolutionary War, although lacking proper jurisdiction, on grounds of wartime necessity. He then convinced his friends in the Congress to pass a law which exonerated him and his associates. Charles Lynch is said to have described his actions using the phrase Lynch’s Law, meaning assumption of extrajudicial authority for punishment, which was adopted as a common Americanism. The Law was used in early Western settlements to maintain order until a sheriff or a proper court could be set up, but also served to satisfy the vengeance thirst of mobs. Another contender is Captain William Lynch (1742-1820), who around 1780 led a vigilance committee in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, supposed to keep order there during the Revolutionary War. In 1811, he claimed to be the source of the phrase Lynch’s Law, by then famous, which would have appeared in a compact signed by him and his neighbors to “uphold their own brand of law independent of legal authority”. However, the obscurity of this compact compared to the well-known actions of Charles Lynch makes William a less likely source. A version of the compact, published in 1836, is said to have been a hoax of Edgar Allan Poe. Finally, the earliest potential source is James Lynch Fitzstephen, the Mayor of Galway, Ireland, who in 1493 extra-judicially convicted his own son for the murder of a Spanish visitor, hanging him from the balcony of his house. Fitzstephen is the least likely to be at the origin of lynch, first recorded in 1835.


This post is also available in: Romanian French German