20 Words You Didn’t Know Were Inspired by People


Given that all we do is write about culture all day, we at Flavorpill are always fascinated by words and the tricksy ways they come to be. Recently, we’ve been thinking about the etymology of common words, particularly the ones that can be traced back to specific people in history, whether authors, scientists, or just wealthy estate agents who were, well, boycotted by the town around them. After the jump, twenty common words that originated as people’s names — and there are many more, so add your favorite to the list in the comments!

The 7th Earl of Cardigan. Portrait by Sir Francis Grant

begonia — “Any of various tropical or subtropical plants of the genus Begonia, widely cultivated as ornamentals for their usually asymmetrical, brightly colored leaves.” After Michel Bégon (1638-1710), former governor of the French colony of Haiti and patron of botany.

bloomers — “A costume formerly worn by women and girls that was composed of loose trousers gathered about the ankles and worn under a short skirt.” After Amelia Bloomer, a women’s rights advocate who popularized the style in the early 1850s.

bowdlerize — “To remove material that is considered offensive or objectionable from (a book, for example).” After Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare in 1818, leaving out things like Ophelia’s suicide (it was an accidental drowning, of course), and sanitizing Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” into to “Out, crimson spot!”

boycott — “To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means of coercion.” After Captain Charles Boycott, a former British soldier serving as the estate agent for an absentee landlord, the Earl of Erne, in County Mayo, Ireland. During the Irish “Land War,” when Boycott refused his tenants’ demands for a 25% reduction in rates and began evicting them, politician Charles Parnell and the Irish Land League began to ostracize him and his family, depriving them of service in stores, mail delivery, and other necessities.

cardigan — “A knitted garment, such as a sweater or jacket, that opens down the full length of the front.” After the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell (1797-1868), a British cavalry officer who led the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava during the Crimean War, supposedly while wearing his signature knitted wool wasitcoat.

chauvinism — “1. Militant devotion to and glorification of one’s country; fanatical patriotism. 2. Prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group, or kind.” After legendary French soldier Nicolas Chauvin, who served in Napleon’s army and is credited with stupendously patriotic acts, including getting himself wounded 17 times. Supposedly, Napoleon himself presented the soldier with a Sabre of Honor.

dahlia — “Any of several plants of the genus Dahlia native to the mountains of Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, having tuberous roots and showy, rayed, variously colored flower heads.” After Anders Dahl, an obscure Swedish botanist, whose name was given to the flower after his death by Abbe Antonio Jose Cavanilles, Director of the Royal Gardens of Madrid.

decibel — “A unit used to express relative difference in power or intensity, usually between two acoustic or electric signals, equal to ten times the common logarithm of the ratio of the two levels.” After Alexander Graham Bell — that is, a decibel is one tenth of a bel, the uncommonly-used unit of measurement named after the inventor of the telephone.

fuschia – “A dark purplish-red color.” After Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), the German scientist frequently cited as one of the founding fathers of botany. No stories of German scientists wearing pink here — it was the plant that was named for him; the word wasn’t used to describe color until 1892.

guppy — “A small, brightly colored live-bearing freshwater fish (Poecilia reticulata or Lebistes reticulatus), native to northern South America and adjacent islands of the West Indies and popular in home aquariums.” After R.J. Lechmere Guppy (1836-1916), the Trinidadian clergyman who supplied the first specimens of the fish to the British Museum.

The Marquise de Pompadour. Portrait by François Boucher

jackanapes — “A conceited or impudent person.” After William de la Pole, Fourth Earl and First Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450), whose nickname was “Jacknapes,” derived from “Jack of Naples,” a slang term for a monkey. Yes, mocking the nouveau riche goes back to the 1300s.

leotard — “A snugly fitting, stretchable one-piece garment with or without sleeves that covers the torso, worn especially by dancers, gymnasts, acrobats, and those engaging in exercise workouts.” After Jules Léotard (1830-1870), the French aerialist who created the style.

masochism — “The deriving of sexual gratification, or the tendency to derive sexual gratification, from being physically or emotionally abused.” After Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), the Austrian author of Venus in Furs, which has quite a bit of the stuff in there.

maverick — “1. An unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it. 2. One that refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to a group; a dissenter.” After Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803–1870), a Texas lawyer and cattleman famous for refusing to brand his cattle.

pompadour — “A woman’s hairstyle formed by sweeping the hair straight up from the forehead into a high, turned-back roll.” After Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise de Pompadour, who was the official mistress of King Louis XV from 1745 until her death, rocked this hairstyle, and was accused of causing the Seven Years’ War.

saxophone — “A woodwind instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece and a usually curved conical metal tube, including soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sizes.” After Belgian instrument designer and musician Adolphe Sax, who invented the instrument in 1846.

sandwich — “Two or more slices of bread with a filling such as meat or cheese placed between them.” After John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich credited with inventing the popular lunch item. As the story goes, the Earl was so busy at the card table that he didn’t have time to eat, and would ask his servants to bring him his meat and cheese stuck between two pieces of bread. When asked what they wanted, his friends would say, “the same as Sandwich!” And thus the sandwich was named.

sideburns — “Growths of hair down the sides of a man’s face in front of the ears, especially when worn with the rest of the beard shaved off.” After American Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, who had some super gnarly facial hair. “Burnside” became “sideburns” somehow, and the rest is history.

silhouette — “A drawing consisting of the outline of something, especially a human profile, filled in with a solid color.” After Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), a French finance minister who imposed strict economic restrictions on the rich during the Seven Years War. His name came to refer to anything done inexpensively, and particularly to the black outline portraits, the very cheapest way to capture your likeness.

wellington boots — “Knee-length or calf-length rubber or rubberized boots, worn esp in wet conditions Often shortened to wellies.” After Arthur Wellesley the 1st Duke of Wellington, who “invented” the shoe when he asked his shoemaker to whip him up a modification of the 18th-century Hessian boot, something able to withstand battle as well as being comfortable to lounge about in in the evening.