03 Oct 2013

Eponyms in the English Language

The English language consists of a large amount of eponyms. An eponym is a person or a thing, whether real or fictional, after which a specific discovery, place or era is named. Thus, the person becomes the “eponym” of that thing. Eponymous words range from astronomical observation to zoological taxonomy, with geographical exploration and subnuclear particle physics in between.

The name-giving part of a term is mostly capitalised in English, whereas the common noun part is not, for instance Parkinson disease. British monarchs have become eponymous throughout the English-speaking world for time periods, e.g. Elizabethan, Victorian and Georgian. North American political trends or government administrations often become eponymous with the president, for example Jeffersonian economics, Obamacare or Jacksonian democracy.

However, most of the eponyms that are included in the dictionary are names from famous scientists, e.g. watt (unit of power) from James Watt, a Scottish engineer or newton (unit of force) from Isaac Newton, an English physicist and mathematician.

Eponyms can also refer to genericised trademark or brand names, also known as proprietary eponyms. This refers to a trademark or brand name becoming the generic name for a general class of product or service, for example aspirin and heroin, which were both originally trademarks of the pharmaceutical company Bayer AG. In linguistics, this word formation process is also called commonisation.

But did you know…

… that the words escalator, hoover, hula-hoop, jeep, rollerblade, polaroid, valium and vaseline are all proprietary eponyms?

If not, then don’t stop reading here. We’d like to present 15 of the most interesting (and sometimes unexpected) eponyms in the English language:


The Persian Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was a mathematician, geographer and astronomer (780-850). His work on the Indian numerals was translated into Latin in the 12th century and hence, the decimal positional number system was introduced to the Western world. Algoritmi  is the Latin translation of his surname.


The word America derives from the feminised Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer, navigator and financier. He was the first to demonstrate that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as it was initially assumed by Columbus and his crew. Instead, he constituted an entirely separate landmass previously unknown to Afro-Eurasians. It was first referred to as The New World and later became termed “America”.

Barbie Doll

Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, named the iconic doll after her daughter Barbara. Handler was an American businesswoman who reworked a design of a doll she had seen in Switzerland and debuted it at the New York toy fair in 1959. Although the doll was not a big success at first, the television advertising campaigns, which Handler invested in, paid off eventually. Barbie’s boyfriend Ken is named after Handler’s son.


The eponym boycott entered the English language during the Irish “Land War” and derived from the name of Captain Charles Boycott. He was the land agent of an absentee landlord, who was subject to social ostracism organised by the Irish Land League in 1880. After several incidents, Boycott’s name was everywhere as a term for organised isolation.

Caesar Salad

Many people believe that the creator of the Caesar salad was no other than Julius Caesar. However, this is wrong. The phrase derives from the Italian-American restaurateur and chef – Caesar Cardini. He is credited with having created the Caesar salad which became fashionable among Hollywood and other celebrities.


The knitted jacket or sweater fastened down the front with buttons was invented by James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868). The English cavalry officer spent his inherited wealth on making his regiment the best dressed in the service. The garment was first worn during the Crimean War as a protection against cold winters.


The German inventor and mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel famously developed the Diesel engine, an internal combustion engine which uses the heat of compression to burn fuel and initiate ignition.


The eponym dunce, a person considered incapable of learning, derives from John Duns Scotus, a Scottish theologian whose theories were ridiculed. His works on philosophy, theology and logic were textbooks in the universities from the 14th century. However, when in the 16th century the Scotists (the followers of Scotus) opposed the new learning, i.e. the King James Bible, the term dunce (or duns) became a synonym for someone being incapable of scholarship by the Protestants.


Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was a GermanDutchPolish physicist, engineer and glass blower. He invented the mercury-in-glass thermometer in Amsterdam (1714) and developed the temperature which now bears his name. The thermometer consists of a bulb containing mercury attached to a narrow glass tube. By the way… The Swedish scientist Anders Celsius devised the Celsius scale in 1742.


Patrick Hooligan was allegedly a rowdy fictional Irishman who travelled to England and became a criminal. The eponym then appeared in print in London police court reports in 1894. It referred to the name of a gang of youths in Lambeth, south London. The gang called themselves the Hooligan Boys and later, the O’Hooligan Boys.


The French physician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) proposed a method of execution by decapitation to the French Revolutionary body in 1789. He was convinced that his method was more efficient and humane than others. Although he did not invent the guillotine himself (he opposed the death penalty in France) – his name became the eponym for it. The actual inventor of the prototype was Antoine Louis, a French physiologist and surgeon.


Candido Jacuzzi had a son who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Hence, he invented a portable pump that he could put into a bathtub to recreate a whirlpool. Roy Jacuzzi, his nephew, saw a great opportunity in this invention and began producing the pump as a product from their family business in the 1960s.


The stimulant drug nicotine was named after Jean Nicot, a French ambassador in Portugal in the mid-16th century. He introduced tobacco plants to France and the queen mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and the Father Superior of Malta soon became instant tobacco converts. At first, the plant was called Nicotina, and later the word nicotine referred specifically to the particular chemical in the plant.


The terms sadistic and sadism derive from the name of the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer. He was famous for his libertine sexuality and erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography. He not only wrote about sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence and criminality, but also practiced sexual sadism himself.


John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-92), was an English diplomat and statesman. Being a conversant gambler, Lord Sandwich could play card games without having a meal during the long hours of playing. Therefore, he used to ask his servants to bring him cold meat in between two slices of bread. Up to this day, sandwiches are a widely popular type on snack and still consist of two (or more) slices of bread with one (or more) fillings between them.


Please let us know about your favourite eponyms, whether they’re in English or any other language.

Watch this rather funny song about eponyms: Wanna Live Forever? Become a Noun!


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