How Byronic: eponyms in philosophy and the arts
While scientists present the most obvious parentage for the eponyms of the English language, artists, philosophers, and writers have also birthed words that slip into conversation. Meet the eponyms immortalizing history’s great philosophers and wordsmiths:
There are artists whose names are discernible even if you have never leafed through their writings or sat through their operas – take Shakespeare, for example.
While the Bard’s plays rooted many expressions into the English language – some even becoming clichés – the adjective Shakespearean keeps the great playwright’s name on our lips. Shakepearean, in keeping with the Bard’s dramatic prowess, conjures up a grand, theatrical, and poetic quality.
But when life needs to stage an enormous production beyond capacity of the Globe Theatre, Wagnerian rides in with the Valkyries. The word evokes a colossal sense of drama, capturing the operatic grandeur of composer Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. For example: ‘a strategic predicament of positively Wagnerian proportions’.
Perhaps this production even casts a Byronic figure in the main role. The adjective Byronic denotes a man who is ‘alluringly dark, mysterious, and moody’ – not unlike his namesake. Now a common TV trope, the Byronic Hero could first be found in many of literature’s classics, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights being a famous example.
Eponyms are not only confined to adjectives of epic proportions and brooding modifiers; they can also bud out of the bureaucratic nightmare of Kafka’s fiction. ‘Tedious and endless with just a touch of the surreal and the absurd’, describe those Kafkaesque moments that recall the Czech writer’s frustrating story of The Trial.
While the Socratic dialogues and The Republic arguably sowed the seeds for Western philosophy, it was Plato’s Symposium that added a new leaf to the linguistic branch with the word platonic.
This adjective attaches itself to love – a deep and intimate friendship or love that never crosses into the sexual threshold. Plato discussed the different facets of love in The Symposium around 385-370 BC, but the origin of the word as we know it today stems from the mid-seventeenth century referencing Plato’s work.
Progressing from the noble concept of platonic love to the more sensual and base pleasures, particularly those associated with food and drink, epicurean is a word synonymous today with food critics and fine dining connoisseurs.
Used of a person devoted to the world’s sensual enjoyment, the eponym remembers Epicurus, a Greek philosopher and founder of the school of Epicureanism who believed that life should be free from fear and pain and filled with simple pleasures.
Another Greek immortalized in our language is the poet Sappho, renowned as a symbol of love and female desire. The adjective sapphic, relates to lesbians or lesbianism – a word that is also associated with the poet, deriving from Sappho’s native island of Lesbos.
Sadism and masochism
From the loins of literary erotica, the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch captured the dichotomous world of pleasure and pain, lending their names to the expression of sadomasochistic desire.
Sadism refers to ‘the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others’, an underlying theme in the Marquis de Sade’s novels.
Masochism is when the roles are reversed: whipped up from the desires of submissive Severin in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs.
The words sadism and masochism have made it into quotidian contexts detached from their more sexualized origins, such as the general use of masochism to mean ‘enjoyment of an activity that appears to be painful or tedious’.
From one Austrian to another, the work of Sigmund Freud revolutionized the world with psychoanalysis, plunging into the subconscious world of the human mind and repressed sexuality. Freudian has become a stand-in for ‘unconscious desire’, and the unintentional error of a Freudian slip often – and usually with tongue firmly ‘in cheek’ – being said to reveal our true, underlying feelings.
As a writer and student dedicated to the paranormal – or anomalous phenomena – Charles Fort’s name became the root for the word to describe things that go bump in the night. Fortean didn’t come into use until the 1970s, 40 years after the author’s death, but is still used today to denote or characterize activities relating to the paranormal.
Cameras in the late nineteenth century may have been used to fake Fortean images in spiritualist circles, but in the decades before the slow developing daguerreotype was the camera used to capture portraits. This name for this form of photography, in which iodine-sensitised silvered plates and mercury vapours were used to develop film, took its name from Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a French painter and pioneering photographer.
Ending this journey through eponyms of the arts, we come to Neanderthal. While a word incorporated into the scientific lexicon, it is ultimately derived from a German hymnist of the 1600s.
One of the first excavation sites where the remains of a Neanderthal man were found was the Neander valley near the Düssel river in Germany, and so the discovery took its name from the region. The valley itself, however, was named in honour of Calvinist theologian Joachim Neander in the early nineteenth century, who took inspiration from the natural vista for his poetry and hymn writing.