There is a small group of people who, through whim or effort, have had their names transformed into words known as eponyms (“upon a name”)—people’s names that became nouns, verbs and adjectives.
There are scores of such names. Common examples are Benedict Arnold (“traitor”) and Einstein (“genius”). Sometimes the name is used sarcastically to mean the opposite as in “Oh yeah, you’re a regular Einstein.” Such was the case of one of history’s great scholars.
During the Middle Ages there lived a brilliant scholar named John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308). His books on subjects such as grammar, logic and metaphysics were widely used as textbooks in the British universities of the day. His followers were known as “dunsmen,” or “duns,” which became synonymous with intelligence. Alas, when the English Renaissance began in the early 16th Century, Duns Scotus’ ideas were superseded by new ones, which his stubborn followers refused to accept. The new Humanists turned the scholars’ name against them, using “dunce” as a word of ridicule. Today “dunce” means the total opposite of its original meaning.
You probably think Big Ben is the name of the big clock in Parliament Tower. You think wrong. It’s actually the name of the large bell in St. Stephen’s Tower that rings the first chime on every hour. Newspapers of the day referred to the bell as Big Ben in honor of Sir Benjamin Hall, who was chief commissioner of works at the time.
It was thought the giant 42mm German howitzers that bombarded Paris in World War I were manufactured by the Krupp armament company. To “honor” the owner’s zaftig wife, Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, German soldiers began referring to the howitzer as die dicke Bertha, “the fat Bertha.” As it turns out, Krupp didn’t manufacturer the cannon; Skoda Works did. Sorry B.
Supposedly a scoundrel named Borghese papered the Wild West with counterfeit bills. Eventually his name became associated with the funny money, which was shortened to “bogus currency.”
As the story goes, a Mr. Booze of Philadelphia (or Kentucky) was a distiller around 1840 who sold whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins. He modestly named the whiskey after himself. That same year presidential candidate William Henry Harrison’s campaigners used the Mr. Booze’s unique bottles to remind voters their candidate was born in a log cabin. Apparently it worked. Harrison was elected president and, unfortunately, died a month later. As a result, John Tyler became the first vice president to become president. Mr. Booze, of course, went on to fame as a synonym for liquor.
Captain Charles Boycott managed the Earl of Erne’s estates in Ireland. During the deadly potato famine of 1880, Charles Steward Parnell, a member of Parliament, fought for land reform against absentee English landowners like the Earl of Erne. Parnell urged his followers to isolate any landlords who evicted tenant farmers or refused to lower rents during those troubled times. When Boycott, under orders, refused to accept these reforms, his workers left him. Local stores refused to serve him. The post refused to deliver his mail. The people jeered him in the streets, and his life was threatened. Eventually 900 British troops were called in to guard Boycott’s laborers harvesting the Earl’s crops. When the soldiers left, Boycott wisely fled to England. Within months newspapers referred to this isolation technique as a “boycott.”
Louis Braille didn’t invent the system that enables blind persons to read. That honor goes to Charles Barbier, a French army officer who used a system of raised dots and dashes so soldiers could read orders in pitch blackness. Braille, a teacher who was accidentally blinded as a child, learned to read by feeling large raised letters—a cumbersome and inefficient method. Seizing on the solder’s idea, he improved the system to make it easier for the blind to read and write. He introduced his new technique it in 1829, but it didn’t catch on, and he died in obscurity in 1852. A short time later a blind organist who played in Paris’ fancy salons became quite famous. When asked how she became successful, she told audiences she owed everything to Louis Braille. Her story spread, and eventually Barbier’s “night writing” became known as Braille.
If you became a word, what would it mean? Send me your answers.
Alan Graner is Chief Creative Officer at Daly-Swartz Public Relations, an Orange County, CA marketing communications firm. He dreams of becoming an eponym. Or even a synonym. For public relations campaigns that are synonymous with memorable, email Jeffrey Swartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.