One of the many sources of our English vocabulary is the eponym – a word named after a person or place.
Some eponyms are obvious – I’m sure you can guess what Count Pavel Stroganoff lent his name to? Although he descended from wealthy Russian aristocracy, he was born in Paris, where a French chef concocted a blend of French and Russian cuisine, the sautéed beef and sour cream dish Beef Stroganoff and named it after his Russian benefactor.
Portrait painter Samuel Morse invented the morse telegraph system, and Rudolf Diesel was famous for the invention of the diesel engine.
However, not everyone would be pleased to have an eponym created in their honour. Theologian John Duns Scotus was anything but a dunce, but that is what his enemies called him and the name stuck.
St Audrey, the daughter of the King of East Anglia, lived a fairly blameless life in a monastery in the 7th century. When she died of the plague in 679AD, she had a tumour on her neck, which she believed was caused because she wore necklaces in her youth. After her death, lace neckties sold at fairs to commemorate her were eventually considered to be cheap and showy. The name St Audrey was abbreviated to tawdry, meaning cheap or flashy.
Charles Boycott, an English land agent in Ireland, became a verb – to boycott means to ostracise, which is what the local Irish people did to him when he refused to lower rents in time of famine.
Another name that became a verb is that of Thomas Bowdler. A 19thC English physician, he edited Shakespeare’s works, removing “those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family”. For example, in Hamlet, he referred to the death of Ophelia as a drowning accident, despite the likelihood that she had intended suicide. To bowdlerise is now a word meaning ‘to remove material from a text considered improper or offensive’.
There’s an interesting story behind every eponym. And a question – if it were possible, what would you like to be named after you?