Vocabulary Rocks! Eponyms

A true eponym is an ordinary common noun derived from the name of a person or place. The important, defining property is that the word does not refer exclusively to the person or place named by the proper noun, as does Marxism or Christian, but is used to refer to a general category. Even if you don’t know anything about the eponymous individuals, it’s still clear that phrases like Benedict Arnold or Achilles’ tendon reference individuals (whether real or fictitious). However, by strict definition, an eponym is a single word, not a phrase. Thus, possessive nouns like Newton’s Law, or nouns that refer specifically to the person who invented/discovered it like Heimlich Maneuver (as well as the two noted earlier) are not eponyms. This is especially clear if the name is capitalized, as opposed to such eponyms as silhouette, boycott, or cardigan. Other commonly listed eponyms that are inaccurate are former brand names – kleenex, escalator, aspirin – now associated with generic nouns, since these were never the names of people.

Of course, it should be noted that not every expert holds to these exclusions, so some lists of eponyms will include samples that defy the rules.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog on wellingtons, an eponym for the boots named for the Duke of Wellington. In previous “Vocabulary Rocks!” blog posts I covered boycott and cardigan, neither of which I knew came from a person. Here a few others I didn’t know. Hopefully you will find them as fascinating!


In the 4th century A.D. a Christian physician named Pantaleon (meaning “in all things like a lion”) was condemned to death by the Romans, martyred under the reign of Emperor Maximian, for aiding the poor. He was beheaded, but survived six attempts to take his life. Later the Church canonized him, giving him the name “Saint Panteleimon, which means “all-merciful”.  He was given this title to recognize his strength, courage, and compassion. In time he became the patron saint of physicians. Looking for such courage and strength in their sons, numerous boys were christened with his name thereafter.

Commedia dell’arte Pantalone

In the 16th century, the Italian Commedia dell’arte – a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” (such as Harlequin and many others that evolved into clown characters) – included a principal character named Pantalone, Panteleon, or Pantaloon. The name was taken from the Catholic saint in typical comedic farce because the character was entirely based on currency and ego.

…for he has the highest regards for his intelligence, “but at every step he becomes the butt for every conceivable kind of trick”. With little else to occupy his thoughts after a life as a tradesman or merchant, Pantalone is the metaphorical representation of money in the commedia world. –Allardyce Nicoll: The World of Harlequin, a Critical Study of the Commedia Dell’arte

According to Robert Hendrickson in his book Facts on File: An Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the actor playing Pantalone dressed in breeches that were tight below the knee but bloused out in a full puffy fashion from the waist to the knee.

Pantaloons originally referred to bloomers, baggy underwear worn by women. By the 18th century the costume became one worn by many men. A famous portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud found in the Louvre shows Louis XIV in a regal pose, showing off his legs in a “Pantaloon” costume. The term was shortened to “pants” in the 1840s. The term pantaloons continued to be used when referring to the undergarment worn by women under hoop skirts in the same period.


This word meaning a stupid person is an eponym for John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), a leading scholar of philosophy and theology. Scotus was born in Duns, Scotland and his writings formed the philosophical core for a Scholastic sect named after him, the Scotists. In the 16th century, humanists and reformers began attacking the Scotists for splitting hairs and engaging in useless philosophical discussions. In retaliation, the Scotists railed against the new learning of the Renaissance. As a result, Duns’s followers became associated with those who refused to learn. As William Tindale put it in 1530 in An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge:

Remember ye not how […] the old barkyng curres, Dunces disciples and lyke draffe called Scotistes, the children of darknesse, raged in euery pulpit agaynst Greke Latin and Hebrue.

The sense meaning an idiot dates to at least 1579. From John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wyt from that year:

If one be hard in conceiuing, they pronounce him a dowlt: if giuen to studie, they proclaime him a dunce.


Jumbo and Scotty in America, June 1882
Jumbo in America, June 1882

Jumbo (ca. 1860 – September 15, 1885) was the first international animal superstar, and the first African elephant to reach modern Europe alive.  He was born in East Africa, and captured there by Arabian hunters in early 1862. He was sold first to an Italian animal dealer, then to a menagerie in Germany, and then to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Officials of the Jardin traded him to the London Zoological Gardens in 1865 for a rhinoceros, and he lived in the London Zoo for about 16 years, where he delighted visitors by taking them on trips around the zoo grounds in the howdah on his back.  American showman P. T. Barnum wanted Jumbo in his circus, eventually buying the elephant in 1882 for $10,000. Jumbo debuted in the United States on Easter Sunday 1882 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He toured with Barnum’s circus for three years. Tragically, in September 1885, Jumbo was killed in a railway accident in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada. His death was met with worldwide grief and sorrow.

Before the big elephant, the word ‘Jumbo’ was not known in the English language. There is no record of the origin of the elephant’s name. He may have been named after Mumbo Jumbo, a west African tribal holy man. Abraham Bartlett, the Superintendent of the London Zoological Gardens, had once named a gorilla Mumbo so may have named the elephant Jumbo because he liked the sound of the word. The possibility that Jumbo may have been named in Paris is slim as no records of his name exist until later. Jumbo is possibly a variation of one of two Swahili words: jambo, which means “hello”; or jumbe, meaning “chief”. Whatever the truth, thanks to a special animal, the word “jumbo” has entered the English language to mean anything that is huge.

Wikipedia has an excellent article, including additional links, recounting Jumbo’s life and fame.  Jumbo on Wikipedia



In English history, executioner was not a commonly chosen career path because of the risk of friends and families of the deceased knowing who the executioner was and where to find him. Executioners, therefore, were ofttimes coerced into the role. Thomas Derrick, an English executioner from the Elizabethan era, had been convicted of rape but was pardoned by the Earl of Essex (clearing him of the death penalty) on the condition that he became an executioner at Tyburn. Derrick executed more than 3,000 people in his career including his pardoner, the Earl of Essex, in 1601.

While in service, Derrick devised a beam with a topping lift and pulleys for his hangings. It was superior to the old-fashioned rope over the beam method. Duly, the word derrick became an eponym for the frame from which the hangman’s noose was supported. The most famous of Derrick’s gallows in England was the Tyburn Tree where thousands of criminals were executed. To read more on Tyburn, a blog post on Got Soil? gives a nice history lesson.

Through that usage, by analogy, and the clever system of pulleys Derrick fabricated, the word derrick is now applied to modern-day cranes used in all sorts of tasks, such as an oil derrick.


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving of 1812

One who opposes or avoids the use of new technology, (the modern meaning) is after The Luddites, a name taken by textile workers in England during 1811-1816, who destroyed machinery that was displacing them.

While completely unclear, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, a legendary figure like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.

In response to the Luddites, the British parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act which made the destroying of industrial machines punishable by death. Several decades later, in 1867, Karl Marx referred to the Luddites in Capital, Volume I, noting that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines themselves and “the form of society which utilizes these instruments”.

Macadam & Tarmac

Macadam is a type of road construction pioneered by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam around 1820. The method simplified what had been considered state of the art at that point by using single-sized aggregate layers of small stones with a coating of binder as a cementing agent. McAdam first put his ideas about road construction into major practice, the first ‘macadamised’ stretch of road being Marsh Road at Ashton Gate, Bristol. Methods to stabilize macadam surfaces with tar date back to at least 1834, but not until 1901 did Edgar Purnell Hooley patent Tarmac (short for tarmacadam, or tar-penetration macadam). It was a mechanical mixture of tar and aggregate modified by adding small amounts of Portland cement, resin, and pitch, which was then compacted with a steamroller. By far the most durable surfacing product for a long time, the use for airports was logical. Over time asphalt and concrete made macadam and tarmac all but obsolete, but the uncapitalized “tarmac” had evolved into a general name for all airport runways.


A woman’s body described as “rounded and alluringly plump” or “fleshy and voluptuous” being rubenesque derives from the style of Flemish baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who favored that particular female body type.

Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus, 1614



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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Love reading your articles, Sharon!


Sharon, Your pieces are always so fascinating. I feel I should print them out and bind them as keepers.
Someday I shall find the time. 🙂 Thank you once again.

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