The Best of Andy Rooney

It's fun to know more about the English language than is necessary to speak or write it. Eponyms, for example, are an interesting linguistic aberration.

The word "eponym" is one I thought I knew. I thought it was a thing called by a name taken from a person who invented it or was closely associated with it. I would have called "diesel" an eponym because the word was taken from the name of the inventor, Rudolph Diesel. Wrong!

According to several dictionaries, it is Rudolph himself, not his diesel engine, which is the eponym: "One whose name is so prominently connected to a thing as to be a designation for it."

One of the keys to this really having happened to a person's name is when you describe the thing by that name without capitalizing it. The word "diesel" fits that again. There are other examples:

The bunsen burner was named after Robert Bunsen, but it is not spelled "Bunsen burner."

When I was a kid, girls wore bloomers when they played a game like field hockey. Bloomers have gone out of style, but they'll be back. Every style in women's clothing comes back eventually. They were named after Amelia Bloomer.

There are other articles of clothing named after people. "Cardigan," the sweater, was named after Lord Cardigan, the British soldier who led the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade." I guess he wore a sweater instead of a coat of armor.

"Mackintosh" was a waterproof coat named after its inventor, Charles Macintosh, who didn't spell his name with a K.

One of the most famous eponyms is the life preserver they carry on aircraft flying over water, named after the buxom actress. The flotation device is universally known as a "Mae West."

The Earl of Sandwich is a famous eponym. He was hooked on gambling and hated to leave the gambling table long enough to eat, so he ordered a waiter to bring him some meat between two slices of bread so he could eat without stopping.

"Boycott" recalls Charles Boycott. He worked as an agent for some lord in Ireland, and people disliked him so much that they wouldn't speak to him or do business with him and they tried to get everyone else to do the same. They boycotted him.

Louis Braille invented a system of raised dots on a page that spelled words which blind people can read by feeling the dots.

A lot of diseases are named after the people who discovered them: "Alzheimer's" after Alois Alzheimer, "Addison's Disease" after Thomas Addison and "Huntington's Disease" after George Huntington.

"Freudian slip" is named for Sigmund Freud. It means you've said something you didn't mean to say because of an idea in your head you were not conscious of having.

The names of several people who discovered electrical phenomena are eponyms. James Watt was a talented Scottish inventor and a unit of electrical energy is named for him.

The abbreviation "amp," short for "ampere," was named for Andre Ampere, a Frenchman, and a "volt" was named after an Italian, Allesandro Volta. He invented the first battery.

Perhaps, at later date, I will explain, in detail, the difference between a watt, an ampere and a volt. Not now, though.

(This classic Rooney column was originally published July 12, 1998.)

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