23 words you didn’t know were named after people

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1. Saxophone

Back in 1846, a Belgian by the name of Adolphe Sax decided to invent the sort of musical instrument he wanted to see – something with a little Sax-appeal. The result was a very cool looking single-reed woodwind design, a conical bore, and all that jazz. Along with many actual greats, famous players include Kenny G, Lisa Simpson, and Bill Clinton.

2. Mesmerise

German doctor Franz Mesmer was quite the popular physician in the late 1700s. But once he started claiming that the “Mesmer effect” (related to the body being controlled by “animal magnetism” – now known as the “Lynx effect”…) was a real phenomenon, people weren’t so sure. As it turned out, he died a pauper, but by the 1840s, hypnotism and the power to “mesmerise” had become quite a big thing.

3. Nicotine

Back in 1559, Jean Nicot – the French ambassador at the time – was in Portugal to arrange the marriage of a six-year-old princess to a five-year-old prince (and we’re not talking about playing dress ups here). So to help kick his underage marriage officiating habit, he decided to bring back to France some tobacco plants he’d found. He claimed the plants contained chemicals with medicinal healing properties. That chemical/poison was named after him, and its name would be forever linked to health and vitality. Oh, wait.

4. Mausoleum

This word, meaning “a big ol’ above-ground burial chamber”, was named after a Persian governor, Mausolus, who was in office about 2300 years ago. His own burial chamber was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (or as you may know it: “one of the ones I can never remember, let’s see now, pyramids… those gardens… lighthouse… statue thing…ummm”). It was destroyed by an earthquake around the 15th century, but the word lives on.

5. Lynching

This has nothing to do with David Lynch, but could be what his fans were thinking of doing to him while trying to work out who killed Laura Palmer back in Twin Peaks. Instead, this word meaning “punishment by a furious mob” is likely to have come from either Charles or William Lynch – both fans of vigilante justice in Virginia in the 1780s. Although it started off meaning all sorts of punishment, it became most synonymous with hanging.

6. Uzi

No, it’s not that jelly-bean tasting liquor you had at that Greek restaurant that time and ended up on the tables (that’s Ouzo). Instead, this is a type of submachine gun designed by Uziel Gal in the Israeli Army during the late 1940s. Gal didn’t want a weapon named after him but that request was ignored and the Uzi entered into official use in 1951.

7. Dunce

If you’re going to have a word named after you, it’s not ideal if it’s one that relates to stupid people. The unfortunate soul was Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus – well-respected during his lifetime in the late 1200s, but a few centuries later, people took a closer look and decided that anyone following his thinking were enemies of learning and known as “dunces”. The dunce cap was for one “incapable of scholarship”. So next time you’ve been sent to the corner, think of the Scottish philosopher who put you there.

8. Diesel

We all know that Thomas was a tank engine, but did you know that Rudolf was a diesel engine? Rudolf Diesel developed such an engine in the late 1800s – a pretty important invention. You may even drive a diesel car yourself. (Apologies to those who were hoping the word had come from…umm, hang on… it’s right on the tip of my tongue… the musician Diesel.)

9. Shrapnel

Major General Henry Shrapnel has the dubious honour of having himself embedded in countless individuals thanks to his invention, the shrapnel shell – used from the 19th century on. Right through until World War I – about 75 years after his death, they were still making the shells exactly as he had designed. In the following century, manufacturing methods may have changed, but the word “shrapnel” is as accurate as ever.

10. Boycott

Actually, we’re not going to do this one.

11. Silhouette

So, this dark and mysterious word is named after a person is it? A spy perhaps? Maybe some kind of femme fatale? No, it was the French finance minister Étienne de Silhouette! Was he a fan of standing in front of backlit windows? Did he enjoy moonlit walks? No again. It was his harsh economic penny pinching during the 1750s, timed with the emergence of a cost-cutting portrait art style using black paper outlines (cheaper than detailed drawings) that brought the two together. Timing is everything!

12. Maverick

Surprisingly this term was only invented in 1986, following Tom Cruise’s portrayal as “Maverick” in the film Top Gun. Okay, again, that’s not true. It was actually Samuel Maverick, an 1800s lawyer and land owner from Texas, who owned a bunch of cattle but refused to brand them. And so, “maverick” became known as a person who refuses to follow the rules. (You know, like flying into the danger zone.)

13. Leotard

Despite only seeming to have been in existence since the days of Flashdance and Aerobics Oz Style, these dancing tights were first known as leotards way back in the 1880s. They were named for French trapeze artist Jules Léotard – however he never used this name, and it wasn’t until 15 years after his death that the term took hold. Through the 20th century they were used in the dancing and circus industries, before their mainstream debut in the 1980s.

14. Pilates

And while you’re in your leotard, come and do some pilates. Joseph Pilates suffered from a range of maladies as a child – so decided to devote his life to improving his physical strength. In particular, he looked at skiing, yoga, body-building, martial arts and gymnastics to create his own brand of exercise. After moving from Germany to the USA in the 1920s, he started using this with dancers (probably in leotards) to help build flexibility, strength and stamina. And once the society women got wind of what was going on, the rest was history…

15. Luddite

It’s used today to describe someone who just doesn’t seem to understand how to attach a picture to an email (or more broadly, anyone who opposes innovation or technological progress). However, it all started with Ned Ludd, an English worker who went on a bit of a rampage and destroyed weaving machinery around 1779 – presumably because it was taking all the jobs. About 30 years later, a kind of copycat band of weavers calling themselves the “Luddites” did the same thing. (Spoiler alert – machines won.)

16. Sideburns

It’s odd to think that those long strips of hair on the side of the face once didn’t have their own name, but it’s true. And it was US Army General Ambrose Burnside in the mid-19th century who wore these long “side whiskers” which joined to his moustache. Over time, the moustache was dropped and the elements of the word changed places due to the etymological version of Chinese whispers. In recent decades, the 1970s were probably the sideburns’ finest hour.

17. Tantalise

This word (much like the word “politician”) means “to torment or tease with the sight or promise of something unobtainable”. And that’s exactly what happened to Tantalus – a Greek mythological figure forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree. The branches would ever elude his grasp, while the water always receded before he could drink. This darker definition is less common these days than the meaning to “excite the senses”.

18. Boysenberry

There was an American botanist who developed a hybrid berry. And yes he was a boy. But even more than that, his name was Rudolph Boysen. (You can figure out the rest from there.)

19. Frangipani

And while we’re in the garden, that most delightful of tropical flowers, the frangipani perhaps sounds like it has come from a native language in the Pacific. But no! It’s actually named after a 16th century Italian nobleman named Marquis Frangipani who created a perfume for scenting gloves. Yes, you heard that correctly.

20. Jacuzzi

Jump in the hot tub time machine and travel back half a century to where Italian-American inventor Candido Enzo Jacuzzi first patented a whirlpool bath to help his 15-month-old son who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. This brand name for a whirlpool or spa bath has become synonymous with ALL products and brands on the market. When this happens (other examples include Vaseline, Band Aid, Xerox, iPod or Kleenex) it’s known as a proprietary eponym.

21. Tarmac

Named after John Loudon MacAdam, a Scottish engineer from the late 1700s and early 1800s, the word is a combo of “tar” + “mac(adam)”. Mr MacAdam was the first to think up using crushed up stone for roads. These days, “tarmac” primarily defines the heavy-duty asphalt you might find at airports. (Note, the “macadamia” nut was also named after John MacAdam – but a different one, who was only nine years old and not at all nutty yet when the tarmac guy died!)

22. Mentor

This has become one of the key buzzwords of the 21st century, especially the use of “mentor” as a verb. But the story began way back with Homer. No, further back than 1989 – we’re not talking about Homer Simpson, it’s Homer’s epic The Odyssey from nearly 3000 years ago. In it, Odysseus’ loyal buddy Mentor looked after his son Telemachus while he went off and did his odyssey business. Clearly he would have made an ideal mentor…

23. Nemesis

Ahhhh nemesis, finally we meet. And it’s rather appropriate that it follows Homer’s epic poem as this one is all Greek to me. Nemesis was an ancient Greek goddess; the divine spirit of retribution, who would punish those who possessed too much hubris. (I believe it may be legal to possess hubris in Amsterdam, though.) Nemesis believed that no one should ever have too much good…and that’s why we need to end this list right here.

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