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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Eponym

When a name or a noun is drawn from a famous person

columns Updated: Oct 18, 2019 18:35 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
         

Eponym (noun), one whose name becomes that of a place, a people, an era, or an institution.

He tapped out a message in Morse code hailing its eponymous inventor, Samuel Morse.

Eponym comes from the Greek eponymos “given as a name, giving one’s name to something,” as a plural noun (short for eponymoi, heroes) denoting founders (legendary or real) of tribes or cities. Thus the American capital in Washington DC was never the residence of its eponymous first President, George Washington. When you speak of the Victorian era you are referring to the period of its eponymous monarch, Queen Victoria. The Modi government is headed by its eponymous Prime Minister, Narendra Modi; Obamacare is a health insurance scheme named for its eponymous President, Barack Obama; Thatcherism is an economic philosophy of laissez-fair capitalism named for its strident advocate, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Eponyms are not merely useful for referring to politics. A Tudor building refers to a style made popular during the rule of its eponymous British dynasty, and a Georgian square to the eponymous King George III. “Those Edwardian young men in spats” suggests the youth in question lived in the time of Britain’s first post-Victorian monarch King Edward VII. Bowler hats, then worn by those men in spats, were invented by the eponymous William Bowler. Queen Anne furniture alludes to the eponymous British monarch of the beginning of the 18th century.

Common household products also refer, often unknowingly, to their eponymous creators. “I’ll Hoover it up” comes from the inventor of the vacuum-cleaner that bore his name; “I need to fill up some diesel” takes its name from the eponymous German, Rudolf Diesel, who invented that fuel; “let’s take the kids on the Ferris wheel” credits the eponymous engineer who first came up with that enormous contraption to whirl seated people around for pleasure. If you want to hop into the jacuzzi, you are tipping your hat (or doffing your clothes) to an eponymous pair of Italian brothers. If you slip on some leotards, there’s an eponymous French fashion designer, Jacques Leotard, you’re memorialising. And if you eat a sandwich, you are paying tribute to the inveterate gambler the eponymous Earl of Sandwich, who had the snack invented for him so he didn’t have to interrupt his card games for a meal. When I visited Sudan in the late 1970s, it was common to hear people saying “I’ll pick you up in my Tata,” without being conscious of the eponymous Indian vehicle manufacturer.

One “boycotts” people throughout the English-speaking world without knowing a thing about the eponymous Captain Boycott whose unpopularity led to the term. I may as well stop here for fear of being boycotted myself...