Famous Names That Inspired Common Words

What’s an eponym?

You know lots of eponyms—words based on or derived from a person’s name. They include many commonly used words in a wide range of categories—from fashion, to food, music, and science.

But, who are the people who donated their names to the English language? And, is it always an honor? Many folks are recognized for their creativity, inventions, and style, but others are remembered for their bad characters or behaviors. Let’s look at some famous—and infamous—men and women who became eponyms.


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Cardigan

James Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, was a British general who, in 1854, led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Brudenell was wealthy and stylish, so he outfitted his regiment in uniforms that were stylish as well: knitted-wool waistcoats. He was hailed as a hero when he returned home, and the knitted waistcoat became a popular item.

Cardigans—collarless knitted sweaters that open down the front—were long considered utilitarian but not glamorous. That changed when J. Crew and other brand cardigans became a signature of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe.

Shirley Temple

Do you recall ordering a Shirley Temple cocktail in a restaurant when you were young? The non-alcoholic mixed drink is traditionally made with ginger ale, a splash of grenadine, and garnished with a maraschino cherry. Yum, yum ... you know you want to try one now.

It was invented by a Hollywood bartender for child star Shirley Temple, so she had something to sip while her parents drank old-fashioneds (also garnished with a maraschino cherry).

Boycott

Here’s another guy who might not be so pleased to have a verb (and a noun) named after him. Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English estate manager operating out of Ireland. In 1880, his unfair rent practices and evictions led local activists of the Irish Land League to encourage Boycott’s tenants to stop harvesting crops. Local shops supported the workers and refused to serve Boycott.

Today, people continue to boycott, or "refuse to deal with," a country, organization, or person as a protest or punishment. 

Graham cracker

We have Reverend Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister, to thank for the graham cracker. While he didn’t invent the snack, he preached about vegetarian diets and the temperance movement, and he emphasized eating whole-grain bread. Graham flour and graham crackers were created for his followers, known as "Grahamites."

It’s a good bet, though, that those graham crackers weren’t as sweet as the tasty treats we enjoy today. That also makes us wonder . . . who invented the s'more?

Saxophone

John Coltrane, King Curtis, Stan Getz, Kenny G., and Charlie Parker are among the great jazz and rhythm-and-blues saxophone players who can thank Adolphe Sax for inventing the instrument in 1846.

His new instrument found a home in military bands, but it took decades for the saxophone to become a respected classical instrument. In fact, Sax can thank American jazz and rhythm-and-blues musicians for popularizing his instrument in the early 1920s and 1940s. In the mid-50s, the saxophone began appearing in pop songs and then was adopted by some rock-and-roll bands. Can you imagine Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band without Clarence Clemons’ thrilling sax solos?

Dahlia

The name dahlia was bestowed on this colorful, flowery plant in the late 1700s (after it was introduced to Europe) to honor Anders Dahl, an 18th-century Swedish botanist. Dahl must have been quite popular, too, because different botanists are credited for conferring the name. The plant is originally from Mexico, and the dahlia is the national flower of Mexico.

Bloomers

“Let men be compelled to wear our dress for a while, and we should soon hear them advocating for change.” Amelia Bloomer wrote this in the March 1851 edition of Lily, a newspaper dedicated to helping women gain suffrage and equal economic and educational opportunities.

Bloomer had enough of the corsets and petticoats women at that time were expected to wear. She began to wear an outfit that consisted of a loose-fitting blouse, a knee-length skirt, and baggy pants. That led to a “bloomer craze,” and soon bloomers became a symbol of women’s rights.

Dunce

Would John Duns Scotus—a medieval philosopher commonly called John Duns (Scotus identifies him as a Scot)—be pleased to know we call a dull-witted or stupid person a dunce? John Duns, who was fond of wearing pointy hats, was well thought of in his time. His followers, called "Dunsmen," also sported conical hats.

But during the Renaissance, his ideas fell out of favor and were considered behind the times or stupid. So pointy hats, or dunce caps, became symbols of dimwits, dopes, and idiots.

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Mesmerize

An eponym is a word derived from a person's name, but you have to do something pretty special for your name to become a verb.

To mesmerize is "to hypnotize," named for Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician of the late 1700s. Mesmer was famous for his theory of animal magnetism or the flow of spiritual energy between physical beings. Animal magnetism was initially the centerpiece of Mesmerism, Mesmer's field of hypnosis, but in today's vernacular a person can be "mesmerized" by a painting or a dog as easily as a hypnotic session.

Gerrymandering

To gerrymander is to divide a state or county into electoral districts so as to skew the concentration of votes and give one political party an advantage. This is an example of the other side of eponym coinage: doing something so infamous that your name becomes a verb.

The term is named for Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. In 1812 Gerry reshaped one of his voting districts in the shape of a salamander as a political scheme, so this eponym is also a portmanteau: Gerry + salamander = Gerrymander.

Silhouette

A traditional silhouette is an outline drawing, or a profile portrait cut from black paper. The word arose in the late 1700s when Etienne de Silhouette, a French minister of finance, imposed high taxes on the French upper classes during the Seven Years War.

Because painted portraits were too pricey and photography hadn't been invented yet, these profile cut outs were an inexpensive way to immortalize a face. At the time, Silhouette's name was synonymous with anything made cheaply, but for these paper portraits the name stuck to this day.

Leotard

"He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze." If you've ever found yourself singing this catchy nineteenth century song, then you already know something about Jules Leotard. Leotard was a revolutionary French acrobat who developed the art of trapeze in the late 1800s. He often performed in a skin-tight one-piece body suit that now bears his name, the leotard.

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