Bet you didn’t know these 10 words were named after people

September 28, 2018
Dunce Cone

Some people make such a big impression that they can’t stop naming things after them. George Washington got a city, a state, and a monument. And his home state of Virginia? Also named after a person: the virgin queen, Elizabeth I. But if you’re a really big deal, you get to add a whole new word to the dictionary. It’s happened more often than you think. Here are the strange origins of some of the words you might use every day.

Behind the Lingo

You probably know a couple of words that are named after people. “Pasteurization,” “Morse code,” and “Casanova” are all words named for the people who invented them or best embodied them. But there are a few very common words that might shock (or should we say galvanize?) you. Here are our 10 favorites.

Sandwich

Sometime around 1762, the English nobleman John Montagu was sitting at the gambling table when he began to feel a bit peckish. He didn’t want to go all the way to the dining room, and he certainly didn’t want to get his hands and his cards all greasy. So he summoned a servant and asked for some meat between two pieces of bread. Montagu’s title? The Earl of Sandwich. Fun fact: For a short time, Hawaii was known to the English-speaking world as “the Sandwich Isles,” named for the same man.

Boycott

You might think that boycotts were named after a political activist from centuries past, perhaps the first person to swear off a product they disagreed with. You’d be wrong. Captain Charles C. Boycott was the object of protests, a landlord demanding unfair rents and evicting those who couldn’t pay. Area farmers shunned both Boycott and anyone who worked for him. By 1888, eight years after the protest, the word had entered the dictionary -- and it even followed Boycott to America, where he went by a different name until the newspapers exposed his true identity.

Decibel

Whether you know it or not, the “decibel” was named after a pretty famous person that you’ve almost certainly heard of. Another clue: “deci,” in this case, is used as a prefix, meaning “one-tenth.” Give up? The engineers at Bell Telephone Laboratory named the “bel” after their company’s founder, Alexander Graham Bell, and today, most people just use that smaller unit.

Mesmerize

A sort of precursor to hypnotism, mesmerism was developed by the German doctor Franz Mesmer on the (mistaken) belief that all living things are governed in part by a magnetic fluid. Mesmer began addressing his patients’ ailments with a combination of magnets and the power of suggestion until a scientific commission including Ben Franklin and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who could have earned his own bloody place on this list) proved the magnets added virtually nothing to the process. Today, the word is generally used as a synonym for hypnotism.

Nicotine

Born in 1530, French diplomat Jean Nicot never even visited the Americas, where the plant that would bear his name originally hailed. Instead, he was an ambassador to Portugal, where the tobacco plant had already been brought back due to the country’s brutal and aggressive colonial actions. But Nicot was the one to send seeds back to Paris, where snuff became all the rage. More than 200 years later, the ur-taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus gave tobacco its scientific name: Nicotiana.

Shrapnel

The name “shrapnel” evokes the chaos and violence of an artillery shell exploding into hundreds of high-velocity shards. It’s almost hard to believe it’s also somebody’s name. We’re not sure what more needs to be said about a man who dedicated nearly two decades of his life to devising a better way to blow other people up, but it’s probably worth mentioning that despite the fact that Henry Shrapnel’s work (which he voluntarily took on in his spare time) was done mostly in his 20s and 30s, he wouldn’t receive recognition or compensation until much later in life.

Silhouette

Silhouettes are as old as the act of turning sideways. Even the art form of tracing someone’s profile might date back as far as the ancient Greeks. But they got their name from a French minister of finance in the 18th century. After enacting a tax code that targeted the wealthy (the horror!), Étienne de Silhouette developed a reputation as a cheapskate. Soon, everything frugal or penny-pinching began to be labeled “a la Silhouette” (“like Silhouette does”), including the much more economical form of portraiture.

Pompadour

A contemporary of Silhouette’s (who adored the art form of silhouettes so much that, for a time, they were called “a la Pompadour”), Madame de Pompadour was a friend, political advisor, and courtesan to King Louis XV. But she also had a very iconic head of hair. The pompadour would fade in and out of popularity several times in the centuries to follow, before being most perfectly expressed on John Travolta’s head in “Grease.”

Mausoleum

Before there was such a thing as a mausoleum, there was the Mausoleum -- the tomb of Mausolus, built by his widow as the greatest tomb in the known world. The exact fate of the Mausoleum is unknown, but it was probably destroyed between the 11th and 15th centuries C.E., and its stone reused in other buildings. However, you can still visit the mausoleum after a fashion, since friezes taken from the wreckage are now kept safe at the British Museum.

Dunce (and Dunce Cap)

Here’s irony for you: Before a bastardization of his name became synonymous with ignorance, John Duns Scotus was respected as one of the most intelligent thinkers of his generation. A theologian in the Franciscan tradition, Scotus made many bold claims on a wide range of subjects, from language to divinity to the nature of morality. In the 16th century, however, about two and a half centuries after his death, his ideas began falling out of favor and those who still believed them were derided as “Dunsmen” or “Duns.” As for the hat? Well, Scotus really did wear a pointy hat, and so did many of his followers. We may not give much thought to him today, but the image has lasted more than 800 years.