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Towering achievements: everyday objects named after French people (part 1)

On March 31 this year, Gustave Eiffel’s tower – arguably the most iconic symbol of France – celebrated its 124th birthday. Incidentally, the world’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction is the same age as other famous French creations such as the Moulin Rouge and Herminie Cadolle’s first modern bra… – anyway, with all things français in mind, let’s have a look at some other things that were named after the French people who inspired, invented, or discovered them. A second post, looking at more eponymous inventions, will follow later in April.

Snuffed out

We can trace the entire tobacco phenomenon back to a single moment in 1561: when Jean Nicot de Villemain, a young French ambassador, went to dinner at a friend’s house during his diplomatic stint in Lisbon, and was shown a garden plant from Brazil that apparently had incredible healing properties.

He came back to Paris excitedly bearing the new herb which he believed had already been proven to cure ailments of all kinds. At the royal court, he urged Catherine de Medici’s son to take snuff (or pulverised tobacco leaves) to cure his migraines. It must have worked, because the new fad soon caught on and spread from Paris to the rest of Europe.

Linnaeus is alleged to have named the genus of the tobacco plant Nicotiana in honour of the diplomat. Similarly, when the chemical compound nicotine was finally isolated, it too was named after the man who left an interesting dual legacy to French culture: Nicot spent his later years writing his own ground-breaking French dictionary, the Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606), which paved the way for many French-language dictionaries to come.

Romancing the praline

The pursuit of “sweet salt”, as the Crusaders described it, has been surprisingly influential in shaping the course of world history. Colonial ambitions were driven in part by a sugar-crazed Europe whose wealthier citizens would proudly blacken their teeth to show how much of the saccharine substance they could afford.

In seventeenth-century France, the maréchal du Plessis-Praslin was a sugar industrialist and military man whose chef, Clément, allegedly created the original French praline after accidentally dropping almonds into boiling sugar. A slightly sweeter version of the story recounts how the maréchal, who had a certain reputation, asked his chef to concoct a tantalizing treat for seducing the ladies, with the chef then producing little boxes of caramelized almonds bearing his master’s name, known as praslines.

If you’re wondering about Belgian pralines, they are a more modern creation. As individual chocolate shells filled with soft centres, they can be credited directly to Jean Neuhaus in Brussels in 1912, who replaced the chocolate-coated medicines sold by his family apothecary with chocolate-coated creams. His wife Louise Agostini then patented the ballotin, or small decorative box, and the modern concept of Belgian chocolates began.

Real magnolias

We wouldn’t be painting our walls a certain warm off-white if late seventeenth-century sailing ships hadn’t raced for the Americas intent on finding plentiful sources of cinchona bark. This Peruvian plant was hailed as a cure for malaria (due to its quinine content) in the 1600s after a Jesuit priest noticed local Quechuans taking it with water to relieve shivering in the cold, and soon Charles Plumier, learned French monk and official Royal Botanist, found himself aboard a vessel headed for the French Antilles with the task of cataloguing the plant specimens he found along the way.

After “discovering” and naming fuchsia and begonia, among others, he wrote in 1703 about a flowering tree he had found on the island of Martinique. Locally it was called the talauma, but he gave it the genus name Magnolia in honour of his compatriot Pierre Magnol, an influential French botanist some years his senior. Magnol, also a trained physician , was by then widely renowned in Europe for his remarkable contribution to scientific progress: he had proposed the new concept of grouping plants into families based on shared characteristics, a radical idea in pre-Darwinian times.

Later botanists, such as the Swedish Linnaeus, applied the name Magnolia to similar-looking flowering plants, and today there are several hundred varieties recognised as belonging to the ancient genus – which is so old that it can be traced back to the Cretaceous period.

Madeleine moments

Madeleine Paulmier, the nineteenth-century French pastry cook, could not have known that the small, sweet, shell-shaped cakes (try saying that out loud) which allegedly take their name from her would not only come to symbolize France, but also nostalgia. Marcel Proust’s account of being whisked back to his childhood past on taking a bite of a madeleine cake as an adult has been so widely referenced that madeleine has this additional sense in the Oxford English Dictionary:

As it happens, one traditional explanation of how the little cake acquired its elegant name goes as follows: in 1755, the former Polish king Stanislas Leszcynski was dining in exile in the Chateau de Commercy in Lorraine, when he was informed that the cook had stormed out after a disagreement in the kitchen, taking dessert with him. A young servant girl, Madeleine, then stepped in and offered to bake a cake recipe she’d inherited from her grandmother. The king was so impressed that he named the dessert after her. Perhaps he too had been transported back to childhood on tasting the simple, sweet cake.

Pastures new

Next time you pick up a carton of fresh milk in the supermarket, take a look again at that line “fresh pasteurized milk” (or “pasteurised”, depending on your supermarket). It may conjure up images of cows called Daisy chewing the cud in fresh pastures, but it’s actually a reference to Louis Pasteur, a nineteenth-century French chemist who played a remarkable part in improving our understanding of how germs carry disease.

Researching the fairly newly-established field of germ theory, he discovered in 1862 that heating liquids to a high temperature for a certain length of time, followed by immediate cooling, would kill most bacteria within them, a process that became known as pasteurization. The technique was first used on wines and beers, but once applied to milk, from the later nineteenth century onwards, the pasteurization process is thought to be a major contributing factor to reducing death from disease in the developed world.

In the next post, we will look at the linguistic derivations of various other French inventions, from guillotine to leotard.