Word Odyssey: Don’t “Bogart” That Eponym, My Friend


1 comment
Eponyms are names that have become immortalized in well known words, such as syphilis, sadism and masochism. We’ll get to those, but let’s start with a favorite, bogart, which is slang for hogging something, like a medical marijuana joint at a party, instead of passing it on. As movie buffs will guess, bogart comes from Humphrey Bogart, who had a cigarette continually dangling from his lips—just like the guy at the party. The term got a big boost from the 1969 flick Easy Rider, which featured the song “Don’t Bogart Me” by the pretty well-forgotten band “Fraternity of Man”, whose lyrics began with “Don’t bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me.”
Words for clothing are often eponyms. Bloomers are those puffy trouser-like things that women once wore under a skirt. They were promoted as enabling women to play sports and such that they couldn't in a dress. This fashion trend was picked up by suffragettes, one of whom was Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and the undergarment became known as bloomers. Fortunately for women, fashion ultimately changed; women now can wear trousers that we call pants, so that today either sex might be wearing the pants in the family. Pants is a shortening of pantaloons, which comes from a stock goofball character in Italian comedies who wore this kind of clothing. This character, by the way, derives from St. Panteleone, the patron saint of Venice, which just goes to show you that nothing is sacred. Parenthetically, I should warn Americans that the Brits have a different understanding of the word pants, who use it as a synonym for panties. This will help you avoid a faux pas I once made. Better just say levi’s, named of course for Levi Strauss, who in turn was named after the Biblical father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I have no good segue for this, so I’ll just move on to guillotine, which you will recall is a device popularized during the French Revolution, used to lop off the heads of people who failed to show sufficiently radical sympathies. Although the guillotine sounds gruesome, it was designed by Dr. Joseph Guillotine as a more humane method of execution than hanging, firing squads, and other more painful, slower methods of capital punishment. As Dr. Guillotine himself touted his invention to the French Assembly: “With my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” The necks of many members of the French Assembly, including Robespierre, would soon get to test the Doctor’s claim. The word derrick, which we now mostly think of as the structure in an oil derrick, began as a word for the tower supporting the hangman’s noose. It was named after one Thomas Derrick, a notorious English executioner, who was pardoned from the death penalty himself on the condition that he enter that particular profession. Proving that history loves irony, in 1601 Derrick was called upon to hang the Earl of Sussex, the man who pardoned him.

Speaking of Earls, the common sandwich is named after the infamous libertine, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who asked his servant to prepare him something that he could eat that wouldn’t pull him away from the gaming tables. Hence: a meal of meat and other food stuffed between two slices of bread. When he wasn’t gambling and fornicating, the Earl did stints as the First Lord of the Admiralty, where he sponsored Captain James Cook’s remarkable global voyages in the late 1700’s. A grateful Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him, but this honor was diminished when the islands were renamed Hawaii.

Masochism, in which a person achieves pleasure from being inflicted with pain, is from a 19th century Austrian writer, Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, who among other things signed a contract with his mistress which called for her to treat him as his slave for six months. A contract? Really? His best known novel is Venus in Furs, which recently was made into a Tony Award-nominated broadway play, as well as a French movie. Sadism is from the Marquis de Sade, who achieved fame with his well known sex-capades, which in opposition to masochism involved inflicting pain on others. Interestingly, Citizen de Sade’s sexual proclivities did not prevent him from being elected as a delegate to the National Convention during the French Revolution. Syphilis derives from a 16th century Italian poem entitled “Syphilis Sive de Morbo Gallico”, which translates to “Syphilis, or the French Disease”, in which the hero, a shepherd named Syphilis, becomes the disease’s first victim.

Most of us would probably like to have a word coined after them, but John Duns Scotus would be humiliated that a dull-minded person is called a dunce. Dr. Scotus was a famous 13th century theologian, whose works were later criticized as hair-splitting sophistry—and whose obstinate followers were mocked as dunces.

One of my favorite eponyms is bowdlerize, a term of ridicule for censoring a literary work by cutting offending passages. Bowdlerize is from Thomas Bowdler, who expended a great deal of effort purifying Shakespeare. For example, where Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth cried "Out, damned spot!", Bowdler changed it to "Out, crimson spot!" He also attempted to improve the Word of God by eliminating some of the Bible's racier passages. I hope my editor sees no need to bowdlerize this column.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment