9 words named after people

3 min read

Sure, some people have buildings or bridges named after them, but what about actual words? This ultimate honor is known as an eponym: A noun named after a person. You might be familiar with eponyms when referring to a restaurant named after a famous chef, or a gymnastics move named after the gymnast who first performed it. But here are nine commonly-used eponyms and the famous folks behind the words.

John Hancock

Shorthand for signature, John Hancock earned his place in history for his, shall we say, elaborate flourish on the Declaration of Independence. The story goes his large-sized scrawl was so King George III could read it loud and clear. In truth, he was the president of the Continental Congress at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, so his signature was the only official name attached to it during the printing process. Now, you can add your own John Hancock to any legal document to make sure it's nice a legible.


This sweet jazz instrument was created, patented, and then exhibited by one Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker, all the way back in the mid-1800s. The -phone suffix comes from the Greek word for sound, although you now know, calling it a plain old sax is equally correct.


You may just know them as the strips of hair on the side of your head that get unruly when you’re overdue for a trip to the barber. Sideburns may owe their fame to the likes of Elvis, who rocked the do in his day, but they owe their name to Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was a Union Army general, railroad executive, and the first president of the NRA. Google his photo and you’ll see why this distinctive facial hair feature was named after him.


A far cry from the country club sweater set associations of today, cardigan is actually named for the seventh Earl of Cardigan, whose troops wore this fashion staple into battle.


Many eponyms actually come from mythological characters, such as Aphrodite and aphrodisiac. Atlas is another example – the Greek figure Atlas is known for holding the world on his shoulders, and today, we call a book of maps an atlas after him.


Ironically, the first boycott was an act of rebellion against Charles Boycott. This Irish land baron saw his field workers strike as part of a broader political statement to let laboring farmers actually own the land they worked. This led to other townspeople refusing service to Boycott and his family. The entire affair, which was covered extensively in the British press, eventually led to the coining of the term boycott around 1880.


Many, many product or brand names come from their founders, from Cadbury to Cadillac. But nicotine, as an ingredient, comes from a French ambassador named Jean Nicot. He scouted tobacco while visiting Portugal and brought seeds and leaves back with him. No wonder the French are such famously glamorous smokers.


Pop culture also has an impact on the language we use. We can thank an infamous “Happy Days” episode for giving us the saying “jumped the shark” to describe a TV show that’s run out of ideas. MacGyver was an ’80s TV show about a notoriously crafty fixer / government agent / investigator. To MacGyver something is shorthand for cobbling together something ingenious out of impossibly limited resources.


You’ll see a ton of eponyms in the fields of science, medicine, and math. Inventors, or those to first discover something, get the honor of coining the phenomenon in their name. Fahrenheit is one such example, as the system was invented by German physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit. A few other science terms named after people? Fallopian tube comes from Italian physician Gabriele Falloppio, Parkinson’s disease is named after British historian James Parkinson, and pasteurization is thanks to French chemist Louis Pasteur.

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