Eponym Guy

The word guy is one of the most commonly used nouns in American English, right up there with home, water, and time. And it came from a British guy named Guy, making the word an eponym. Even though the man in question was born in 1570, our use of guy as a synonym of fellow didn’t take root until the late 1800s, and it became part of everyday speech only in the mid-1960s. The identity of the Brit? Guy Fawkes, whom you can read about in the list of eponyms below.

FYI, an eponym* is derived from the name of something else… in this case, people. One of the best known is boycott, from Charles Boycott (1832–1807), the ruthless land agent for an Irish lord whose estate workers had major grievances — and they ostracized Boycott so effectively that local merchants banned him from their shops. Two other oft-cited eponyms are casanova, from Venice-born Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798), the famed womanizer who wrote a memoir boasting of his conquests; bloomers, from suffragette Amelia Jenkins Bloomer, who fought for new styles of dress; and John Hancock, a synonym for signature. (Hancock’s florid signature on the Declaration of Independence remains familiar to this day.)

Name Games

Most of us don’t realize how many common words in our vocabulary were born of proper names. Following are ten examples, a few you may know of and others that may come as a surprise.

    • algorithm This word comes from the groundbreaking Muslim mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c.780–850), a Persian whose name was Latinized as Algorithmi. He developed the concept of the algorithm, the decimal number system, and, with help from the Greeks who had gone before, algebra, a cornerstone of the sciences.
    • bunkum, bunk, debunk The name of plantation owner Edward Buncombe was the source of the respelled bunkum, but only by way of the North Carolina country named for him. Here’s how: In 1820 the county’s Congressman, Felix Walker, delayed the House of Representatives vote on the Missouri Compromise by giving a long-winded, irrelevant speech. When riled House members’ repeated attempts to make Walker shut his mouth and sit down failed, he proclaimed, “I speak for the people of Buncombe!” A wag soon publicly remarked, “For Buncome? His speech was Buncombe” – and so was born the word (and, in time, its two other forms) meaning “foolish, empty talk.”
    • derrick From c.1200,  the village of Tyburn was where most London criminals were hanged. The most famous hangman was Thomas Derrick, a convicted rapist pardoned by the Earl of Essex because executioners were hard to come by. About all that is known of Derrick is his execution of some 3,000 people (the Earl included!) and, in 1601, his design of an innovative gallows. The design was later copied – and over time, tall functional towers with an open framework came to be called derricks.
    • frisbee Californian Fred Morrison and wife Lucille liked to play catch with a cake pan at the beach, and in 1938 Fred and a partner began selling a disc they called the Flyin’ Saucer. In 1955 a solo Fred designed a disc he named the Pluto Platter, bought by Wham-O two years later. New England College students began calling the platter a “frisbee” because it reminded them of pie plates from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Wham-O thought the nickname a winner – and the rest is history. (If things had gone differently, would today’s frisbee fans be tossing around a fred?)
    • guy In 1605 Guy Fawkes (1570–1605) took part in a plot to kill King James I and restore a Catholic to the throne. The man whose name became an everyday  word was hanged after he was caught guarding a stockpile of gunpowder. Thereafter, on the anniversary of Fawke’s death, townspeople across England burned grotesque effigies they called guys and celebrated the failure of the so-called Gunpowder Plot with fireworks.
    • lynch The origin of lynch is uncertain, but it most likely came from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginian who jailed Loyalists to the crown during the Revolutionary War. Lynch petitioned the Continental Congress to permit such imprisonment, and the result was the “Lynch Law” – a term soon used for controversial unsanctioned acts. In the mid-1900s, lynch earned an awful connotation when applied to the beatings of slaves, and later to the hanging of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes.
    • masochism From Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), who devoted a plethora of pages in his short stories and novels to the attainment of sexual pleasure from pain.** The Masoch portion of his surname came from his mother, a Ukrainian noblewman. Bonus bit of trivia: Singer Marianne Faithfull is the great-great niece of Herr Sacher-Masoch.
    • nicotine Jean Nicot (1530–1600) was introduced to tobacco – as a medicinal plant, not a smoke – when he was France’s ambassador to Portugal in the 1560s. The powdered leaves (i.e., snuff) he sent to the French court became all the rage with the courtiers (and an addiction, perhaps?), then spread throughout Europe. In 1753 the Swedish botanist Linnaeus named the tobacco genus Nicotiana in honor of Nicot, immortalizing a man who might otherwise be forgotten.
    • ritz, ritzy César Ritz (1850–1918) was born in Switzerland, and at age 20 landed a job at one of one of Paris’s most famous restaurants, Voisin. Soon he was rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous from all corners of the world. At the height of the Gilded Age he opened the Ritz Hotel in Paris, which forever after made his name synonymous with luxury and elegance.
    • volt, voltage From Alessandro Volt (1745–1827), an Italian physicist who, in 1775, invented the electrophorus, a device generating static electricity. In 1800 his voltaic pile (a wet battery) was the first step toward the electric battery. Volt married the daughter of a count and became a count himself in 1810, when Napoleon awarded him the title for his pioneering work.

*For the origin of eponyms taken from mythological or fictional personages, see Gargantua and Friends.

**Sacher-Masoch’s earlier, better known partner in ewww was the Marquis de Sade, who not only gave us the word sadism but whose sexual pleasure-from-pain games were more perverse than those favored by Sacher-Masoch.

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