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The prime minister in your teapot, the hero on your plate: eponyms in Oxford Dictionaries

If you were asked to think about the link between real-life people and English language dictionaries, the connection you’d probably make is lexicographers—people like the great Dr Johnson or the OED’s founder James Murray, who compiled those mighty reference works on which we rely for information and enjoyment. And you’d be right, up to a point.

Hats, cardies, and a nice cup of tea

But let’s take this typical autumnal experience: you’re on your way home from work, making your way through the November rain in your wellies. By now soaking wet, you wish you’d brought your bowler hat or at least hailed a hansom cab. Passing by a heap of tarmac piled up by a JCB, you cross at the Belisha beacon waved on by a local bobby, while fishing in the pocket of your mackintosh for the key to your Chubb lock. Once inside it’s on with a warm cardigan and then a reviving snack: perhaps a pot of Earl Grey and some garibaldis, or maybe, given the day you’ve just had, something stronger like a Bloody Mary?

What’s going on here? In a matter of minutes you’ve engaged with a series of objects—a pair of rubber boots, a hat, a waterproof coat, a piece of knitwear, a plate of biscuits, and so on—that are known by the name either of their originator or named in commemoration of a historical figure. These, moreover, are not just ‘brand names’ which often carry their maker’s personal name but remain one-off products that, by their very nature, aim to be distinctive (instead of that Bloody Mary, for example, how about a Guinness or a Pimms?). Rather, what we’ve just encountered are eponyms that have become generic descriptors for everyday objects—sufficiently well-known to pass into everyday speech and, subsequently, into language dictionaries. And it’s not just material objects, but scientific observations and practices (your 60 watt bulb or a Venn diagram, for example); social ideologies and movements (Orwellian to Darwinian); and adjectives, verbs, and idioms (‘boycotting spoonerisms is the full monty’) that allow us, in everyday speech, to make numerous connections between words and real people.

The lives of others, from the Oxford DNB

But if the eponyms themselves are often (quite literally) household names, the lives of those for whom they’re named are often less well-known. It’s here that another kind of OUP dictionary—the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography —can help. The Oxford DNB is a collection of 58,000 life-stories of men and women who’ve shaped all walks of British history, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. And that includes those remembered every time you pull on your boots, button up your knitwear, or pour the tea.

By using Oxford Dictionaries Online and the ODNB side-by-side it’s possible to learn more about the historical individuals who’ve given rise to some everyday words. And it’s this that we’ll be doing here, and in several future blog posts looking at the real lives behind some well-known eponyms. But, first, a word on limitations. Because the Oxford DNB covers people in British history, the examples in these pieces will refer principally to eponyms named after real-life UK subjects. So, regrettably, after this sentence there’ll be no more talk of ladies in bloomers or leotards, silhouettes of Ferris wheels, or orders for Caesar salad written down in biro.* In short, you’ll get what you’re given; or, put another way, it’s Hobson’s choice.

They did it first

Returning to that autumnal dash home, it’s possible to see some of the different origins for eponyms. First, there are those inventions and creations which carry their maker’s name but, unlike individual brands, have evolved to become readily understood shorthands for a generic kind of product.

It was in about 1820 that the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh discovered a means to seal rubber in between layers of cloth, thus creating a new flexible waterproof fabric particularly welcomed by those, prior to the railways, who travelled by horse or coach. Initially ‘Macintosh’ was just one among many company names, but soon it was being used more widely: first in Britain by the artist William Powell Frith (from 1836) and in United States by the poet Henry Longfellow (in 1840). Interestingly, both referred to a ‘mackintosh’ (with a ‘k’) and so it’s in this form that the fabric, and garments like coats, became widely known. In the following decade came another staple of the Victorian gentleman’s wardrobe, the bowler hat, named for a father and son team of milliners, William and Thomas Bowler. Initially intended as a hunting accessory, the Bowlers’ hard-wearing, short-brimmed design soon became popular in the City of London where it could withstand the grime thrown up by scores of Hansom cabs (Joseph Aloysius Hansom, 1803-1882) speeding along recently ‘macadamized’ and later ‘tarmac’ roads (John Loudon Macadam, 1756-1836).

How to win friends and influence people

Secondly there are eponyms that acknowledge the influence (usually political) of the person responsible for bringing them about. Some such associations—like the British ‘bobby’—are well-known, derived from Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel who was home secretary when the London constabulary, the first effective police service, was established in 1828. Other origins are less well-known. The amber globes on black and white poles, so familiar to British pedestrians, became Belisha beacons in recognition of Leslie Hore-Belisha (1893-1957), the government minister who oversaw their introduction in 1934. Had the poles been introduced at another point in the decade, and hence under a different transport minister, we might today cross at Pybus, Burgin or Brabazon beacons.

First worn / eaten / drunk by…

Finally there are those objects named for their (sometimes loose) associations, typically with once notable figures. The high-topped boots worn by Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington (1769-1852), and the knitted coat worn by James Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan (1797-1868) may now evoke a rather cosy image, but both originated on the battlefield and were named for the heroes of Waterloo and Crimea. Your choice of biscuit has similarly valiant origins, the garibaldi being a celebratory English version of the wartime rations provided by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), hero of Italian unification, and first baked around the time of the Italian’s visit to Britain in 1864. But if those eponymous biscuits are relatively easy to pin down, the accompanying tea proves less so. Known to be named for the Whig prime minister, Charles Grey, second Earl Grey (1764-1845), quite how and when this bergamot flavoured black tea gained its famous eponym remains unclear.

So that’s teatime taken care of. Now for dinner: peach Melba or pavlova, followed by Bath Olivers and a dish of greengages perhaps?

*Named for the American Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94); the French acrobat Jules Léotard (1842-70); the French finance minister Étienne de Silhouette (1709-67); the US engineer George Washington Ferris (1859-96); the Italian-American restaurateur Caesar Cardini (1896-1956), and the Hungarian pen-maker, László Bíró (1889-1985).

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