Law-student-turned-acrobat, Jules Leotard, is credited with inventing the aerial trapeze act in 1859. He starred in the Paris Cirque Napoleon and was the inspiration for the song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” In order to show off his “splendid” physique and eliminate any safety hazards from loose clothing, Mr. Leotard designed a tight-fitting, one-piece knitted costume with long sleeves he called a “maillot.” He died from either smallpox or cholera in 1870 at the young age of thirty-two. Within a few decades after his death, his circus garment became eponymously known as a “leotard.”
Eponymy is when a thing, place, or event is named after or becomes synonymous with someone. For example, Queen Victoria of England is the eponym of the Victorian era. The label can be a fictional character as well. To be called a Grinch refers to the Christmas-hating central character in How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The term is also applied to creative work such as the album, The Doors, a work by the band, the Doors, which is then called a self-titled album. Unlike Marxism or Christian, eponymous words like quisling and sandwich have evolved a common-word status and no longer derive meaning from their proper-noun origin.
Below are six more eponyms with colorful histories that may surprise you!
In 19th-century Ireland, absentee landlords in England grew wealthy at the expense of the Irish tenants working their land. With fears of another potato famine, the Irish National Land League demanded that British land agents, like Charles Boycott, reduce their rents. After Mr. Boycott rejected the order, the Land League responded with a nonviolent protest. Local workers refused to harvest Boycott’s crops, shops would not serve him, neighbors shunned him, and even the postman “forgot” to deliver his mail. Boycott was forced to hire armed guards to protect workers he imported from the north of Ireland. Boycott’s name has since become synonymous with the method of protest employed against him.
The word “gerrymander” refers to the unfair practice of dividing voting districts to give an unfair advantage to one party. In 1812, Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, reshaped one of his voting districts in a shape that suggested the body of a salamander. This prompted a staffer at the Boston Gazette to coin the portmanteau “gerrymander.”
James Brudenell was the 7th Earl of Cardigan and a British military hero. Lord Cardigan led the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War against Russia in 1854. The earl used his own funds and designed a knitted wool waistcoat with an open front for his soldiers to stay warm during the Russian winter. Although his cavalry was decimated, the British major general was hailed a hero at home for the bravery of his soldiers. Lord Cardigan’s popularity led to the Cardigan sweater, a clothing item that has since become a fashion staple on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1963, Ernesto A. Miranda was a laborer convicted of kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery based on his confession under police interrogation. His conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court (Miranda v. Arizona) because arresting officers had failed to inform him of his legal rights. After his conviction was overturned, he was retried and again convicted based on other evidence. He served eleven years in prison and was paroled in 1972. After his release, he made money by selling Miranda warning cards with his signature for $1.50 each. In 1976, at the age of 34, he was stabbed to death in a bar fight. One suspect fled the scene and another was arrested. The detained suspect invoked his Miranda rights and refused to talk to the police. With no evidence against him, he was released.
Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister who imposed high taxes on the upper classes during the Seven Years War with Britain in the late 1700s. As France’s deficit spiraled out of control, he became an object of Parisian ridicule for his austerity measures. The phrase “a la Silhouette” was a mocking description for doing something “on the cheap.” At the time, profile portraits and framed images cut from black paper were looked at derisively as worthless replacements for more expensive paintings and sculptures. Today, the penny-pinching minister is eponymously remembered by these “silhouette portraits.”
In the late 16th century, Thomas Derrick was a convict facing the death penalty in Elizabethan England. Derrick was offered a pardon by the Earl of Essex if he would work for the state as an executioner — an undesirable job often filled by coercion. During his time as a hangman, Derrick designed a new system with a topping lift and pulley to replace the rope-over-the-beam hanging method. Derrick executed over 3,000 people, one of whom, ironically, was the man who pardoned him, the Earl of Essex. Today, a derrick is known as a crane or lifting device designed for moving large objects. They are widely used in engineering and drilling for oil and gas reserves.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in the conundrum with cotronyms and capitonyms, or the explosive use of acronyms in the English language!
Go to the previous or next Fun Facts About English.
Vocabulary charts are great for posting on a classroom board or directly in students’ interactive notebooks! Charts include animals, food, clothing, transportation, CVC & CVCe words, and much more! Check them all out in Donald’s English Classroom!