Common Words That Came From Historical Figures

Wednesday, December 12 min read

The English language is full of surprises, especially when it comes to naming things. Sometimes, a place, a thing, or an idea is named after a person — typically, when that person discovers or invents something. That word is called an “eponym.”

While an eponym is usually obvious, such as “Marxism” referring to the philosophies of Karl Marx, other names are less overt, like “cardigan” being named after the seventh Earl of Cardigan whose troops wore (you guessed it) button-up sweaters. From “sandwich” to “shrapnel,” read on to learn more about common words named after historical figures.


Named for the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, this one might be fairly familiar to most people. The name for this deli staple comes from the English nobleman who dreamed up a more convenient way to eat his meal while playing cards. He asked his chef for something he could eat with his hands and enjoy while playing games and voilà — the sandwich was born.


To pasteurize something means to make it safe for consumption, which is exactly what French chemist Louis Pasteur was trying to do when he invented the process. In 1883, at the request of Napoleon III, Pasteur studied wine contamination and found that heating it to 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit prevented contamination. Although pasteurization is rarely used for wine today, it is still used for common goods like eggs, milk, juice, cheese, and yogurt.


While he may not be a household name like George Washington or Alexander Hamilton,  Elbridge Gerry still left quite a mark on the nation’s political history. As the Massachusetts governor in 1813, Gerry redrew the voting districts to benefit his own party. Shortly after, a cartoon appeared featuring “Gerry” the “salamander” with the new districts. The term “gerrymander” took off and is still used today to describe manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to benefit a particular party.


The noticeably French word “silhouette” is derived from Étienne de Silhouette, the French minister of finance in 1759. There are several theories as to why this word originated with the financier. A popular belief is that it was an insult to Silhouette because he was seen as stingy and a “silhouette” was an inexpensive way to create someone’s portrait. It is also rumored that he made a hobby of cutting out paper shadow portraits of people, thus inspiring the new term. Similarly, the phrase "à la Silhouette" meant "on the cheap."


Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who believed that indulging the appetite was healthy. While Epicurus did not believe in overindulgence, some of his followers misinterpreted his teachings. They emphasized seeking pleasure, especially through dining and drinking. This is why “epicure” is sometimes associated with gluttony. Today, “epicurean” is used to describe someone or something related to luxurious cuisine and is frequently used in marketing for gourmet food.


Shrapnel (sharp fragments from a bomb, shell, or another explosion) is named after Henry Shrapnel, an English artillery officer. Shrapnel invented lethal shells that contained bullets with pieces of metal that scattered just short of impact. These shells were used in World War I but were discontinued in World War II after advancements in artillery technology. Today, the word refers to any fragments thrown out by an explosion.

Featured image credit: utah778/ iStock

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