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Linsanity: a star is born

The Internet in general and the sports world in particular (as least that aspect of it that follows basketball) have been fairly agog of late, following the sudden elevation of the New York Knicks latest star, one Jeremy Lin. This is not surprising, given that the story of an Asian-American player from Harvard achieving stardom (after having been overlooked for most of his entire professional career to date) is not a typical one. What is somewhat surprising, however, is the amount of attention that has been put into wordplay, using his last name as a base.

The New York Times has sponsored a limerick contest, there are online glossaries devoted to Lin- words, from Lindustrial Revolution to DomLination, and the website Language Log has weighed in on the matter (with a post opining on the correct Mandarin translation of Linsanity).

An eponym is always preferable to a bad pun

Lin is the name that launched a thousand execrable puns. Having to suffer through the endless series of these puns is a small price to pay for the additional attention that is being brought to bear on eponyms, which are a class of word that tend to have particularly interesting etymologies.

Many eponyms deal with things that one might not wish to have one’s name associated with, such as disease, instruments of punishment, or treason. But there are also eponyms that are of a considerably more benign nature, as is the case with food and drink words (such as peach Melba, Caesar salad, and pretty much any kind of sandwich).

Standing the test of time

There are hundreds of eponymous words in common English usage, although this is but a small fraction of the total number – dictionaries tend to leave out many scientific words, and many of these kinds of words are named after discoverers or inventors working in some branch of science. The copy of the Eponyms Dictionary Index that I have (which is from 1977 and fairly out of date) has well over 700 pages of eponyms. And not a single one of them is named after anyone named Lin. Which raises the question – how likely is it that any of these Lin- words will survive?

Quite unlikely.

The words that are associated with Jeremy Lin are all playful uses of his name as a prefix – he isn’t an inventor or indelibly associated with something to the extent that it will be named after him. At least not so far. Eponymous words based on the last name of athletes are not particularly common, aside from those formed with adjectival suffixes like –esque. So whether any of the Lin formations will endure remains to be seen. Even when the names are those of such luminaries as presidents, it can be hard to second guess the longevity of an eponym. Reaganomics and Hooverville are examples which have stood the test of time. And although it’s not in any dictionary yet, Obamacare at least stands a chance of entering the lexicon for an extended stay. Only time will tell.