Many words, modern and ancient, are derived from the name of a person. They are called eponyms and most of them are based on real people or real events — but many are blatantly phoney. First, some of the genuine ones.
Sir William Gage gave his name to the ‘greengage’ in 1724, but it was by accident rather than by design.
That which we call a greengage arrived in France from Italy and immediately drew the attention of Queen Claude, the wife of King François I.
Her name was given to this new type of plum and in France it has been known as ‘reine-claude’ ever since. In Spain greengages are called ‘claudias’.
Sir William went to France in 1724 and returned with many items of horticultural interest, including some ‘reine-claude’ trees.
But at some point after his return to Bury St Edmunds, the labels on the trees fell off and were lost.
They became known as Gage’s green plums because they were green rather than the more usual red or yellow.
But with the passing of time the name changed and the fruit eventually settled down in England as the greengage.
As soon as we systematically refuse to have anything to do with someone or with some institution, we use an eponym that originated with Captain Charles Boycott.
He was an Irish land agent whose extremely high rents in 1880 angered the Irish Land League so much they cut off all contact with him. The word is still very much in use.
A ‘derrick’ is now mainly a type of crane with a jib pivoted to the foot of a central post. It is also the framework over an oil well of other boring that supports a drilling device.
But derrick started out as a device with a quite different function. It was originally the scaffold from which people were hanged and it was named after London hangman Goodman Derrick in the early 17th century.
If we go back to 400BC we come to Mausolos, king of Caria, an ancient province of Asia Minor that is now in south-west Anatolia, which forms the greater part of Turkey.
When Mausolos died his queen, Artemisia, built him a gigantic tomb in Halicarnassus that became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Any large and stately burial place was later called a mausoleum.
One of the most common forms of food poisoning is ‘salmonella’ but it has nothing to do with salmon. It was named after Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850-1914) an American veterinary surgeon.
The most common form of salmonella in Majorca used to be potato salad made with fresh egg yolk mayonnaise that had been left out of the fridge. The health authorities got over that problem by banning the use of uncooked fresh eggs in restaurants.
This means, among other things, you can never get an authentic spaghetti carbonara in a restaurant if the cook is keeping to the rules — a genuine carbonara calls for raw egg yolks to be stirred into the pasta just before serving it.
During the Iraqi war we frequently read of soldiers being badly wounded by ‘shrapnel’ bombs. They were invented by General Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), an English artillery expert.
A ‘quisling’ is a traitor or someone who co-operates with a occupying army. That word entered the dictionary via Major Vidkum Quisling, a Norwegian army officer and diplomat who collaborated with the German occupying forces during the Second World War.
Some eponyms come from fictional characters. A ‘malapropism’, the ludicrous misuse of a word, especially for one resembling it (dance a flamingo, instead of flamenco) comes from Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775).
The word ‘gamp’, and large and unwieldy umbrella, came from Mrs Gamp in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. She always carried one.
English has many words based on real surnames that have become erroneous eponyms because they were linked to people who just happened to fit the definition of the word. When in doubt about the origins of an eponym you should consult a good dictionary.
The Oxford and Webster’s are extremely strict when deciding on the origin of a word and never give in to popular usage. If there is documentary proof of a word’s origin, it is given. If not, the word is said to be of ‘unkn origin’.
Those who subscribe to the false eponyms go to great lengths to present their arguments. Such is the case of Nathaniel Bigot, a Puritan preacher and activist. He was born in Ipswich and even as a young boy he was obstinately intolerant of others and their beliefs.
He moved to London in the 1590s and it is said he was persona non grata at the Globe theatre for interrupting the quieter moments in some Shakespearean plays by loudly preaching against vanity.
He considered the young John Bunyan to be frivolous, and although he was an early follower of the Puritans, they found his views and opinions to be too extreme, and never allowed him to become a member of their various sects.
This seems to be a well-established eponym: people who are intolerant and narrow-minded are ‘bigots’. But when you look up bigot in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find it is French word of ‘unkn origin’. It was just pure chance that Nathaniel Bigot fitted the definition.
‘Bogus’ is another eponym that is….well, bogus. Harold Bogus was a con man who made a fortune out of scams and fraudulent inventions. He created a machine, he told people, that could print money — by turning cabbage leaves into banknotes. Those who fell for fairy tales like that deserved to be conned.
He sounds like a great candidate for an eponym, but bogus is a late 18th century word of ‘unkn origin’.
And then there’s Sir Oswald Binge (1678-1768) who was so greedy and had such a huge appetite that ‘binge’ came to mean overindulgence on a grand scale, especially of drink.
True or false? as Riki used to say. Bogus is a late 18th century slang term thought to have been coined by Oxford University students.
A German nobleman called Friedrich von Wink (1755-1811) supposedly introduced the strange Bavarian custom of closing one eye to signal he had just made a witty remark.
The 18th century dandy and socialite Beau Brummell thought this was ill-bred behaviour of the worst kind and condemned it. But winking became fashionable. Sounds like a good eponym — but once again it is completely false.