Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oh, To Be a Sandwich! …or… What Does It Take to Become an Eponym?

If you were born in July or August by Caesarean section, you have an eponymous connection… the first and last names of an early Roman Emperor, Julius or Augustus Caesar.

But, do you ever wish you could be an eponym, with something named after you…something more enduring than your not-totally-reliable progeny?

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, James Brudnell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, and, no kidding, Joao Marmalado (1450-1510) of Portugal, are all folks whose names were taken by the items they originated, which survive centuries later.

Eponyms also attribute to something discovered, like America (although Vespucci must give indigenous people their due!), something invented, like the derringer (Henry Derringer, American gunsmith), or something inspired, like the axel (Axel Paulsen, Norwegian figure skater). They surprise us frequently… we just never think that there might have been a Mr. Doyley, a 17th century London draper, who inspires the tatting of doilies to this day!

Some are very subtle, like maudlin, which derives from Mary Magdalene’s effusive sentimental behavior in the New Testament. Others are more obvious, like ritzy after Caesar Ritz, Swiss hotelier. Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills is forever preserved in the idealistic quixotic.

Eponyms come not only from people’s names, but from the names of places where things originated like the mazurka, a dance from Mazury, a region of Poland, and madras, that wonderful cotton fabric, from a city now renamed Chennia, the 5th most populous in India. (Back in “the day” I had to have bleeding madras, whose dyes were not fast, so that it looked different every time it was washed…cool!)

Writing this column, I have to be careful of something not so cool, malapropism, after the fictional character, Mrs. Malaprop from Sheridan’s “Rivals.” She was noted for her blunders in the use of words.

Two of my personal favorite eponyms come from nineteenth century circus performers, who died before their time only fifteen years apart.

Jumbo, whose name is from a Swahili word jumbe meaning “chief,” was a 6½ ton French Sudanese elephant, born in 1861. He toured the US and Canada with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was the largest of its 30 elephants, a big hit with the public, and featured on most of the Circus’ posters. On the night of 9/15/1885, he was hit and killed by an express freight train in St. Thomas, Ontario. The resulting publicity inspired “Jumbo-size” food items like hot dogs and sausages. The word stuck to describe anything large or huge, including Boeing’s Jumbo Jets.

Jules Leotard (1842-1870) invented the flying trapeze and popularized the one-piece gym-wear that bears his name. He joined the Cirque Napoleon, went on to international stardom, and inspired the 1867 hit song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Although he sprained his ankle in a bad fall in Boston, he died in Spain of smallpox.

So now you have some idea of what it takes to achieve eponymous immortality. Remember… that favorite lunch food, the ham sandwich could just as easily have been called a ham sullivan, or a ham smith. If your name is John, you don’t have to bother…you’re already a famous necessity.

And if you want the easy way to eponymic status, simply be my Valentine!