Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Word Nerd

I’ve always been fascinated by word origins. One reason is simply the adventure of it all. You get to go places. English is such a rabid magpie language that it welcomes accretions from almost any source and from speech born in the remotest of countries: “Tote” and “gumbo,” for example, come from Africa. "Chow” and “ketchup” traveled west long ago from East Asia. And "pajamas” and “bungalow" are from India.

But tracking word origins is not just an exercise in virtual world travel. It can also be time travel—all the way back to Sanskrit, and beyond (if you dare). And then there's the history behind every word as it traveled into modern English, which is inherently fun to discover. In this category, one of my favorite kinds of words is one that always packs the promise of a curious back story—the eponym.

Say what?

No, an eponym is not an extinct animal species or a gastric complaint. It is a word that describes a word derived from a person’s name. We all know them: Pennsylvania (named for the father of the Quaker colonist, William Penn, 1644-1718), the Teddy Bear (think Teddy Roosevelt) or Sandwich (from the card-playing English earl).

Thus it was with considerable relish that I stumbled on an old paperback copy of the A Dictionary of Eponyms (C.L. Beeching, Oxford University Press) at a library book sale last autumn. This is really fun reading for a word nerd like me. Full of surprises. Who’d have thought, for instance, that the commonplace bright, pink fuchsia flower, a native of the Americas, is named for Leonhard Fuchs a 16th-century German botanist and professor of medicine at the University of Tubingen? Or that the Happy-Face yellow forsythia shrub that explodes across America each spring (originally an Asian plant) is named for William Forsyth, the Scots-born head gardener at the Royal Gardens in London during the reign of King George III?

Okay, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that botanical terms would be named after botanists. But the fact is, I never think about it—the words have become so everyday-common their eponymous ancestors have dropped out of sight.

Here's another one that might surprise you:

Shrapnel, which now means any sort of explosive fragment, is named for Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), a British army officer who invented a devastating artillery shell filled with musket balls that exploded and broke apart on impact. The weapon was particularly effective against French forces at the Battle of Waterloo.


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