Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Hello again from the Word Nerd. As those of you who have been following my obsession with word origins know by now (see postings 10/16, 10/24, 11/28), I find eponyms—words derived from someone's name—tempting. They are, in fact, tantalizing, which is, itself, an eponymous term that harkens way back to the eternally tempted Tantalus of Greek mythology.

Everybody knows that when they say something is Darwinian or they speak of Darwinism they are linking back to the theories of the famous 19th-century biologist, Charles Darwin. That's a good example of an eponym. And most Americans know that the Bowie knife is named after James Bowie, brave defender of the Alamo. But not many people know that the peppy little freshwater fish we call guppies are named after an English-born amateur naturalist and resident of Trinidad, Robert J. L. Guppy (1836-1916), who was one of the first discoverers of the species and who, in 1861, sent specimens to the British Museum for classification. Guppies, popular home aquarium fish, have been used to control the spread of mosquito-born diseases because they feed on mosquito larvae. They are also "live bearing" in that baby guppies hatch out of their eggs before birth and are born ready to swim.

Here are a few more eponyms:

Volt: The measure of electrical force, is named for Italian Count Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), inventor of the first modern electrical battery.

Stetson: The wide-brimmed hat that is today an icon of the Old West, is named for New Jersey hat maker, John B. Stetson (1830-1906).

Derrick: The scaffolding most people associate with Texas oil wells, is so-called in honor of one Thomas Derrick, an Elizabethan-era hangman who devised a “better” gallows for his 3,000 executions. From meaning any frame for a hangman’s noose, the term evolved to its more benign definition today.


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