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Eponymous English: from Benjamins and John Hancocks to boycotts and Draping?

We all strive to leave a legacy. We remember history’s greats through plaques and monuments, books and movies, songs and works of art. Another (often overlooked) way we pay homage to people of the past is through language. We might name a place, a theorem, or even a disease after the person who first visited it, proved it, or discovered its malignant effects.

The continents of America are believed to have been named for Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies were not the Asian outskirts Columbus originally thought he had chanced upon. The Pythagorean Theorem is at the root and base (no pun intended) of Euclidean geometry. James Parkinson, Alois Alzheimer, and Hans Asperger may not have known that their names would be associated with bad news when they discovered the neurological disorders which bear their names, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Asperger’s.

When a proper name comes into common usage as a noun, we call it an eponym. Eponyms allow us to categorize ideas by the thinkers who invented them, giving us Freudian, Cartesian, Hobbesian, Calvinist, Platonic, Kafkaesque, and Machiavellian, to name just a few. Interestingly, an eponym doesn’t just refer to a word named for a person but also to the person whose name inspired the word: the name-giver and the word are considered to be eponyms of each other.

Big people eponymized in the little things. Benjamins, your John Hancock, and the sandwich

Many eponyms are named for important people and celebrate arguably the most important things they’ve accomplished. Some eponyms, however, aren’t directly related to anything momentous. Rather than recalling a theorem, discovery or contribution to society, such eponyms describe the little things, using the names of big people.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a famed inventor. Many people credit Franklin with the discovery of electricity while flying a kite in a lightning storm. Interestingly, though, a Benjamin is not a kite, an electrical current, or any sort of political ideology. Instead, it is a slang term often used to refer to a one hundred dollar bill. The earliest use of it in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1994, in the Notorious B.I.G. song ‘One more chance/Stay with me’. Ben Franklin will (hopefully) be remembered for reasons other than the hundred dollar bill, but other name givers are now mainly remembered by their eponyms.

Anyone ever ask you for your John Hancock? John Hancock is a slang term used for a signature. Interestingly, most people can’t quite tell you who John Hancock was beyond this. A prominent patriot of the American Revolution, the president of the Second Continental Congress, and the first Governor of Massachusetts, Hancock was a celebrated political figure in his day. But, because Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence was famously larger and loopier than that of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Robert Paine, and other more famous signatories, a signature became known as a John Hancock.

The story of the naming of the sandwich is similar. The Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, was Postmaster General, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. Also a gambler, legend has it that Sandwich wouldn’t take a moment’s break at the gambling table. He would stay focused on the betting and when he was hungry, he would order the already-popular snack of a slice of meat situated between two pieces of bread. I suppose this was easier on his card-playing hands. Others would order this too. ‘I’ll have the same as Sandwich’, the story goes. Hence, we now call such a food item a sandwich. Earl IV of Sandwich may have made some important political contributions to society but we really remember him for naming (but not inventing) the ever-convenient sandwich.

Legacies in verbs: to lynch and to boycott

Other eponyms embody a very dark legacy. Lynching, extrajudicial execution often associated with the brutal hangings of blacks in the American south, actually comes from the name of a man called Charles Lynch. Lynch was a Virginia plantation owner and an American Revolutionary. He headed a self-run court in Virginia to punish Loyalist supporters of the British during the American Revolutionary War. ‘Lynch’s Law’ – from which we derive lynching – referred to the organized but unauthorized hanging of individuals whom Lynch deemed criminal.

Similarly, Charles Boycott was a land agent in Ireland who was accused by his community of mistreating his agrarian tenants and abusing their rights. His produce was subsequently blacklisted and so from this we derive the English verb ‘to boycott‘.

Pop culture has birthed some eponyms too: kanyeing, tebowing, and, um, draping

Kanye West, the American music tycoon best known for his creative and poetic stream-of-consciousness style, may also come to be remembered for the eponym ‘kanyeing’. In 2009 at the Video Music Awards, just as Taylor Swift was receiving an award, West jumped on stage and grabbed the microphone from her, proclaiming that Beyoncé’s video for ‘Single Ladies’, nominated for the same award, was ‘one of the best videos of all time’, suggesting that she should have won the award instead of Swift. This colloquial term has come to refer to the act of interrupting somebody during an important moment to share your own subjective experience of the situation, generally in some rude sort of way. (West’s antics earned him a telling off from Barack Obama, who called him a ‘jackass’.)

Tim Tebow, the quarterback for the New York Jets American football team, has created a signature pose which once flooded the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook. ‘Tebowing’, the pose assumed while kneeling, fist under one’s chin and meditating as though engrossed in quasi-prayer, became an Internet sensation in October 2011. It was popularized by devoted Tebow fan, Jared Kleinstein, who posted a group picture of him and friends mimicking the pose on Facebook. Kleinstein then created a website for others to post such tebowing photos. After ten weeks, the site had gathered twenty million page views and received 20,000 submissions.

A rather comical attempt at creating an eponym for a pose was made by TV network AMC on popular show Mad Men’s official Facebook page. The pose? Draping. ‘Draping’ refers to wrapping one’s arm around a chair (a la a boyfriend at a movie theatre) and taking a mysterious photo from behind. The pose is intended to mimic the iconic Mad Men image, which features AMC’s favorite Don Juan, Donald Draper sitting just so. The Mad Men Facebook page posted incessant updates about people ‘draping’ and claimed that it was on its way to becoming a viral Internet phenomenon. Unfortunately, it never quite took off.

Your turn

Whether you invent a sandwich or discover a fundamental mathematical theorem, just remember that your name has the potential to spawn a new word. While most people aren’t so privileged to choose what they are remembered for, the OxfordWords blog is a magical land where usual principles are thrown aside. So, indulge yourselves in flattery below. How do you want to be eponymized?