Saturday, February 26, 2000

Lots in a name The year-I

EPONYM comes from the Greek eponumos, meaning named on. When the name Ford is applied to a car or, a person with great physical strength is called a Samson, both cases are instances of eponymy. With some words eponymy remains an act of mere transfer, as with sandwich; named after the Earl of Sandwich who was too busy at the gambling table and asked for slices of roast beef nestled in bread as a meal, thus giving the world a sandwich forever! Sometimes the creation of an eponym is more complex, as when Shakespeare’s Shylock became a word to be used for every avaricious person who came along! An eponym can be a simple possessive; Parkinson’s Law after the twentieth century British economist C. Northcote Parkinson or Pascal’s Law after the scientist of the same name. Ampere, Farad, Joule, Ohm, Volt, Watt, Fahrenheit and Coulomb all came into the language in the same manner.

Eponyms like Atlas entered the language after a single usage by an individual. The sixteenth-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator used a picture of the mythological Atlas on the cover of his collection of maps and created the word atlas as the term for a book of maps. But all eponyms did not go through such a simple birth. Often an eponym is derived from a name, instead of the name being used as it is. In Iliad, Homer mentions the story of Stentor who was a Grecian herald with a voice as loud as that of 50 men put together. When we say today that a person has a stentorian voice, the meaning is clear. The word bowdlerize means to expurgate a book by omitting parts considered offensive. The English editor and publisher who published The Family Shakespeare after expurgating it gave us this word. His name? Dr Thomas Bowdler.

  Clipping, or the formation of a word by clipping out some alphabets and clipping in others is another process that uses names; thus creating eponyms. Dunce is one such instance. The word comes from the name John Duns, a great scholar of the thirteenth century. His followers were called the Dunses and when they stuck to the old modes of thought even during changing times, they came to be contemptuously called dunces. Compound words and attributive constructions are also common where people are involved. Teddy Bear is one such word. The source is US President Theodore Roosevelt whose nickname was Teddy. Once, a cartoon showed Roosevelt, known as a bear-hunter, sparing the life of a bear cub. Then onwards, any soft toy in the shape of a bear became a teddy bear. Fictitious or mythical people can also be eponymous: Romeo, Scrooge, Cinderella, Quixotic and man Friday are all familiar words. Herculean as in a Herculean task has a long story behind it. Once, Zeus came to earth and begot a child called Hercules after a relationship with a mortal. Hera, his wife became jealous and sent a pair of serpents to destroy the baby boy. Hercules killed the reptiles with his bare hands. Then, Hera so arranged matters that twelve impossible labours were imposed upon Hercules. He completed them all and won a place in Heaven; henceforth all difficult tasks became herculean.


After giving its name to a whole province (Sindh) in Pakistan; Sindhu, the name of a river, has become eponymous. To begin with, in Sanskrit, the word sindhu was used for a river or sea and the river of the same name simply got stuck with its common noun name.

— Deepti

This feature was published on February 19, 2000