PEOPLE Who Become WORDS
by: Jay Heinrichs
Meet the Cobb salad,
the Bloomer in underwear
and the Derrick in crane.
T HERE ONCE WAS AN ORIGINAL MAVERICK, Samuel A. Maverick, mayor of San Antonio in the mid-1800s—who, despite the name, was no maverick. He was just a small-town politician whose name lives on not because he was a great gunfighter—apologies to you, James Garner, and you, Mel Gibson—but because he was lazy. When Maverick bought a herd of cattle in 1847, he allowed the steers to roam on his ranch, unbanded. From then on, unbanded cattle—and, eventually independent-minded humans—became known as mavericks. As a household word, Mayor Maverick has some distinguished, if not always appreciative, company, in eluding the likes of Mr. Boycott, Ms. Bloomer and Monsieur Leotard.
There was a real guy named Silhouette and, for that matter, a real Guy. All of these people achieved a sort of immortality when their names were turned into everyday words called eponyms (from the Greek - upon a name”). Some 35,000 have made their way into our English.
Murphy ‘s Law is one of the most famous eponyms—the legacy of one very picky Air Force officer. In the late 1940s, Capt. Ed Murphy, an aircraft engineer by training, complained about an incompetent technician on his team. “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will,” Murphy said. His co-workers began calling the cap tan’s pessimism Murphy’s Law, and mentioned it in a press conference. As long as people keep on making mistakes, Murphy will live.
More distant, but still enduring, is the memory of the original Guy, an Englishman named Guy Fawkes. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament and King James I. The English still remember the date by burning stuffed dummies in effigy, and for years any bizarrely dressed person was known as a guy. Over time, and after crossing the Atlantic, the term picked up a less hum- bling connotation.
The British have a knack for punishing memorable characters with eponyms. Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English estate manager who refused to lower rents for poor Irish tenant farmers, inspiring a rent strike and the first boycott.
Thomas Derrick, another unpopular Brit, worked as executioner at London’s Tyburn gallows, hanging hundreds of convicts before being convicted of rape and condemned to die. The Earl of Essex pardoned him, only to be executed in 1601 for treason-by Derrick. A derrick was once a gallows; now the word refers to any equipment used to hang something. (Mr. Derrick did not live long enough to hang any Hooligans, members of a rowdy Irish clan who, legend has it, terrorized a London neighborhood in the 1890s.)
Also achieving dubious fame was Etienne de Silhouette. A deficit-fighting finance minister of France in 1759, he had the nerve to suggest raising taxes. His name became a synonym for cheapness. There’s debate among linguists about just how we got the contemporary usage of silhouette: Some say the black-on-white cut paper portraits then popular were named after the skinflint finance minister, while others insist he was known for making the cut-out portraits.
Shirley Temple has never liked Shirley Temples. (“Too sweet,” she says). Nonetheless, during the more than 60 years since a bartender at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood mixed 7-UP and grenadine in her honor, people have pressed Shirley Temples on her. The retired diplomat, Shirley Temple Black might well wish her name were Cobb. At least then she’d get a stick-to-your-ribs salad. That concoction began with Bob Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, California, who invented his salad in 1926.
If you’re ambitious to become an eponym yourself, the fashion world might be a good start. Amelia Bloomer, an American feminist of the 1800s, championed the under-garment known as bloomers. And the French aerialist Jules Leotard, creator of the flying trapeze, popularized the even more daring tights. The newest eponyms come from mass media and politics. People already talk about gumping through life-getting by on dumb luck, the way Forrest Gump did in the movie. “Doing a Homer” means smacking your head and saying, “D’oh!” Homer Simpson-style, either in frustration, or because you’ve done something dumb—or both
Among the wonks in Washington, D.C., “to bork” is to viciously attack a candidate or appointee. That’s in honor of Robert Bork, the Reagan highly qualified nominee to the Supreme Court whose career was torpedoed in the Senate. One day we may find that people use marthastewart as a single word to mean to arrange with excruciatingly good taste. (As in “I’m marthastewarting his party.”)
Over time, eponyms may change meaning dramatically. That was the happy outcome for Bertha Krupp, a German military manufacturer during World War I. Her firm made a giant howitzer that British soldiers dubbed “Big Bertha” . But the hefty arms merchant has been redeemed through sport: Contemporary golfers refer to her fondly as they swing the innovative driver named-what else-Big Bertha.
Take our quiz to find out---was there really a Mr. Dunce?
How about a chauvinist named Chauvin?
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READER’s DIGEST, December 2001, (pgs. 131-133)
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