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The Scrivener: Aunt Elsie's Eponyms

“After hoovering the carpet, Aunt Elsie put on her cardigan, had a quick chicken sandwich in the kitchen, decided not to have a lamington too, and went to the study to write a note with her biro.

No, that isn't the start of a short story, let alone a novel. It is certainly not great literature. It is merely a contrived sentence to illustrate the role of eponyms in our everyday speech,’’ writes number one columnist Brian Barratt.

An eponym is a word or a name derived from the name of a person. The person might be real or fictional. One of the most common eponyms is hoover. As a noun, it denotes a vaccum cleaner. As a verb, it denotes using a vacuum cleaner.

Mr James Spangler invented and patented the vacuum cleaner as we know it. It was called an Electric Suction Sweeper. He sold the rights to a Mr Hoover, who changed the name of the company. Given that the name of the thing, hoover, is an eponym, if Mr Spangler had retained the rights we would probably be calling it a spangler. Easier to say than electric suction sweeper which, Heaven forbid, might have been shortened to sucker.

Fictitious Aunt Elsie might not have known that James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, led the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854. His name became an eponym for the long-sleeved, collarless, woollen jacket that opens at the front, not because he invented it but because he made it popular among the gentry by wearing it.

Another earl's title became an eponym for Elsie's snack. He was John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792). This gentleman's name was used by James Cook to name islands he discovered in the Pacific, the Sandwich Islands. They are now known as Hawaii. He was a keen gambler, spending long periods at the gaming table. In 1762, during a 24-hour gambling bout, he called for food to be brought to him between two slices of bread so that he could save the time and bother of using a knife and fork. Thus the sandwich received its name.

Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie, Lord Lamington was the Governor of the Colony of Queensland from 1895 to 1901. A lamington is a square of sponge cake coated with chocolate and desiccated coconut. It is very popular in Australia and used as a fund-raiser for schools, scouts, clubs, etc. However, it is not absolutely certain that it was named after Lord Lamington but it's feasible, and a nice idea.

Aunt Elsie wrote with a biro. Ballpoint pens have been made since the 1890s but were not satisfactory. Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist living in Argentina, invented the first practical and marketable ballpoint pen in 1938. During the 1940s and 50s, it became an eponym for any type of ballpoint pen.

If Aunt Elsie had boycotted the chicken sandwich, because it might have been in the fridge for too long and become affected by salmonella bacteria, and instead nibbled a few boysenberries, should would be indulging in three more eponyms.

Boycott is from the name of Captain Charles C.Boycott (1832–1897), an Irish land agent who charged very high rents. Tenants refused to pay, and cut off his mail, food and other deliveries.

The salmonella enterobacteria and salmonella poisoning are nothing to do with a type of fish. They were first identified by an American veterinarian and researcher, Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850–1914).

The boysenberry is a type of blackberry originally develope in the 1920s by an American horticulturalist Rudolph Boysen. It isn't the only berry which has an eponymous name. The youngberry is named after another American horticulturalist, B.M.Young. The loganberry is named after James H. Logan, an American lawyer.

If Aunt Elsie's eponyms have whetted your appetite, you might like to dig around and look for the stories behind diesel, furphy, leotard, maverick, pavlova, peach Melba (that's a giveaway!), saxophone, shrapnel, silhouette, teddy bear, volt, watt... the list goes on.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2003, 2007, 2011

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