Why the word dunce was originally an anti-Catholic insult
The people responsible for 10 fascinating eponyms, from Blurb to Jacuzzi
A portrait of John Duns Scotus by Justus van Gent: the Scottish theologian’s middle name became synonymous with stupidity
The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual. My book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named. Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.
Here are 10 fascinating examples.
A short punchy promotional description of a book, film or other product
American humorist Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) is the originator of this literary eponym. In 1907 Burgess was promoting his book Are You a Bromide? and, as was customary at the time, he had 500 promotional copies printed to give out at the American Booksellers Association banquet. For maximum impact Burgess designed a special dust jacket on which was printed the picture of a glamorous woman (taken from a dental magazine), whom he named Miss Belinda Blurb, shouting out fulsome praise for his book. Though it was intended as a parody, the ‘blurb’ was so successful that it soon caught on with other publishers and has today become the norm.
A person who shows prejudiced fervour for their own cause, sex or country
Since the 1960s chauvinism has been mainly associated with sexism, but prior to this it was more akin to overt patriotism and exaggerated nationalism. The word came into usage in the 1840 s with this meaning, after a semi-mythical French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin. The character of Chauvin was stereotyped in a number of plays, including the popular 1831 vaudeville La Cocarde Tricolore by the Cogniard brothers, but historians are unclear as to whether Chauvin was ever once a real person or pure fiction. The character Chauvin was a French soldier, who fought successfully in Napoleon’s army, eventually receiving a pension and medals for his good service. After the tide had turned against Napoleon and he was exiled to St Helena, Chauvin continued to blindly worship his old leader. It was this ill-advised fervent patriotism which was sent up in the character of Chauvin, and it is for this reason that his name seeped into first the French and then the English language. Today the word can be used with any number of modifiers, such as male or human, to indicate in what sphere the superiority is thought to derive.
A hoist crane
Originally the word ‘derrick’ was used to refer to a hangman, but then over time came to mean the gallows themselves, before coming into usage to refer to a hoist crane - used to lift cargo from ships onto the dock. This circuitous route started with a famed hangman at Tyburn, London. Thomas (some sources have Godfrey) Derrick was active c. 1600. Such was his infamy that he was frequently referred to in contemporary popular theatre and as a consequence his name became associated with the gallows themselves. Recruiting a hangman was not easy; few people were keen to take on such a gruesome role, and so novel methods were used to find the man for the job. Derrick was a convicted rapist; the Earl of Essex promised to pardon him if he would take on the role of hangman. Derrick readily agreed (it was something of a Hobson’s Choice, the other option being to accept the death penalty himself). Clearly a perfectionist, Derrick was not content to just sling a rope over the gallows; instead he invented a series of pulleys to make the whole process more efficient - and it was this innovation which ultimately led to his association with hoist cranes, which utilize a similar technique. In a strange quirk of fate, in 1601 Derrick executed the very man who had got him the job, the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, who had staged an unsuccessful coup against the government.
A type of internal combustion engine; a type of fuel
Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) was a French-German engineer who invented the simple yet efficient diesel engine in 1893. At this time the motor car was in its early infancy and a cheap, reliable and streamlined engine was desperately needed. Diesel used his knowledge of thermodynamics to develop a compression-ignition engine which was far more efficient than any other engine on the market, but unfortunately it was, at least initially, unreliable. Diesel continued to refine his engine and began to see some success - by 1904 his engines were being used in French submarines. The fuel used in Diesel’s engines, which was heavier and cheaper to produce, also became known as ‘diesel’. Despite the growing success of his design, Diesel was beset by financial problems. While travelling aboard the steamer Dresden, on his way to a meeting in London, he fell into the sea to his death. Numerous conspiracy theories implicating oil companies or even the German government exist, but the most likely explanation appears to have been suicide. Diesel stepped out of his cabin during the evening of September 29th, 1913 (a date which had been marked with a cross in his diary), leaving his nightshirt neatly folded on the bed, and never returned. His decomposed body was later found at sea. Diesel did not live to see the huge success of his invention, which after World War I grew massively in popularity, becoming the dominant engine type in trucks, ships and trains.
Someone who is slow at learning
The word ‘dunce’ has come to have strong associations with the humiliation of slow learners due to the Victorian habit of forcing poor students to stand on a stool wearing a dunce’s cap when they failed at their lessons. However, the word is conversely named after a noted intellectual, John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), whose legacy was slowly eroded by changing religious ideas. Scotus - named for his place of birth, the village of Duns in Scotland - was ordained as a Franciscan monk. He grew into a philosopher and theologian of great repute, writing complex theses on the Immaculate Conception and proof of the existence of God. A school of philosophy, Scotism, grew in his wake. Scotus’s intensely analytical theories and strict adherence to the Catholic scriptures were what ultimately led to his name becoming associated with the modern word ‘dunce’. During the Protestant Reformation, Catholic philosophies and teachings were widely criticized, and many adherents of Scotism began to be characterized as slavish followers who were too stupid to think for themselves. It was this association that meant that by 1527 anyone espousing his theories became known as ‘Duns’ and considered intellectually inferior. Over the years the spelling morphed into ‘dunce’ and the word was applied more generally to a dullard or blockhead, completing the strange transformation of a respected intellectual into the word for the class dimwit.
Take it or leave it
Thomas Hobson (c. 1544-1631) made his fortune as a carrier - delivering newspapers and mail from Cambridge to London - and as an innkeeper. Hobson remains in the public consciousness due to the term ‘Hobson’s choice’ - a saying that came into popular use after the manner in which he rented out his horses. Hobson kept a busy stable and when his horses were not delivering the mail he would rent them out to students and scholars. Hobson soon noticed that the fastest and strongest horses were the most popular and thus they became exhausted, while the slower horses were rarely picked. To counteract this, he employed a strict rotation system, in which anyone trying to hire a horse would have to choose the next one in line - effectively offering a particular horse or no horse at all. This successful method of ‘take it or leave it’ soon made Hobson very wealthy and ensured that his name would live on in the saying that sums up his ethos. The poet John Milton (1608-1674), who studied at Cambridge 1625-29, was clearly very impressed with Hob-son’s entrepreneurial spirit. After Hobson’s death, Milton wrote a number of poems in memory of him, including ‘On the University Carrier’ and ‘Hobson’s Epitaph’, in which he popularized the notion of Hobson’s choice, ensuring that this Cambridge expression became familiar across the country.
A luxurious bath with water jets to produce bubbles
Candido Jacuzzi was born in 1903 in Italy and emigrated with his six older brothers and six sisters to America, where they settled in Berkeley, California. The family set up a small engineering business, manufacturing airplane propellers. During World War I the Jacuzzis developed a monoplane and invented a series of submersible pumps, which brought great success to the firm, allowing them to open factories across North and South America. In 1949 Candido’s young son, Kenneth, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was recommended a course of hydrotherapy. At this time the only hydrotherapy available was in large communal baths at hospitals and so Candido invented a portable pump which could be used in a bathtub at home. The Jacuzzis realized the potential of the product and soon the company developed it commercially, finding modest success. In 1968, the third-generation Roy Jacuzzi created a version which incorporated the pump into the tub itself, effectively inventing what would become the hugely successful whirlpool bath. This new idea of a luxury hot tub marketed as a leisure item took off in the 1970s and the name Jacuzzi became synonymous with the product.
To kill someone, usually by hanging, without trial
Lynching is an American term deriving from Lynch Law - meaning to give punishment without trial - its origins found in the American Revolutionary War of the 1780s. However, a certain amount of confusion remains over whom the term is named after because there were two prominent Lynches who claimed the eponym. The first, and most likely, is Colonel Charles Lynch (1736-1796) of Bedford County, Virginia, who was an American Revolutionary plantation and slave owner. From 1778 he was a militia colonel and fervently sought out those with British loyalties and put them on informal trial. At this stage the punishments ranged from flogging to seizure of property. In a letter of 1782, Charles Lynch referred to the process as ‘Lynch’s Law’, thought to be the first recorded use of the term. It seems likely that it was the actions of this prominent militiaman which popularized the term ‘lynching’ for mob execution without due trial. However, in 1836 Edgar Allan Poe claimed to have found a contract drawn up in 1780 between Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania County and his neighbours which used the term ‘Lynch’s Law’ to describe their agreement to set up their own law without legal authority. Doubts have been cast over the veracity of this claim, partly because Edgar Allen Poe was well known as a literary hoaxer and also because Pittsylvania County and Captain William Lynch were obscure and as a result seem an unlikely source of a word which gained nationwide usage. Ultimately Lynch Law and the abominable practice of lynching gained traction during the American Civil War (1861-65), especially in the Deep South, where mobs of (usually white) people attacked and hanged (usually black) people without trial.
Exploded fragments from the metal cases of artillery
Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) was a British officer who served in the army all over the world, in a lifelong military career. Shrapnel, a keen inventor, spent over twenty-eight years perfecting his design for the exploding shell. In the eighteenth century the solid cannon ball had been the most commonly used type of long-range ammunition. Shrapnel thought he could better the design by creating a hollow shell, filled with small metal balls, with its own fuse and gunpowder, meaning the shell would explode over the enemy, showering them with metal and causing maximum damage. The British Army adopted Shrapnel’s invention in 1803 and it was used to devastating effect during the war against the French and at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Shrapnel shells were used right up until the beginning of World War II, when they were superseded by new highly explosive ammunition. However, the word ‘shrapnel’ was retained to describe the exploded metal from shell casings, which continued to wreak havoc on the battlefield.
Cheap, tacky, gaudy and of poor quality
In 679 ce Etheldrida (who later became known as St Audrey), daughter of the king of East Anglia, died from a tumour in her neck. The Venerable Bede, writing in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731, reported that she was likely struck by the affliction from which she died because she frequently wore many showy necklaces. St Audrey became the patron saint of fenland Ely; each year on her saint’s day of 17 October a fair was held in the city, known as St Audrey’s Fair. At the fair many cheap, poorly made items would be on sale, including bands of silk lace or ribbon, which were worn around the throat in memory of the patron saint and became known as ‘Saint Audrey’s laces’. This gradually became contracted and corrupted to (by the end of the 16th century) ‘taudrey lace’ and then to ‘tawdry’, which became synonymous with cheap, tacky goods.
Reprinted with permission from The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms by Claire Cock-Starkey, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.
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