Meet the people behind everyday words

Ever heard of Samuel Maverick or Charles Boycott? Maybe not, but chances are, you have used a couple of their coinages.


We’ve all heard of the Earl of Sandwich and Louise Braille. The words coined for their inventions are examples of eponyms—words derived from a person’s name.

We can all think of some famous eponyms, but many words we use every day are eponyms and we don’t even know it.

Here are some of those more obscure eponyms. (Definitions are from Wordnik.com.)

Boycott—to abstain from buying or using; refusing to patronize or attend.
Named after Charles Boycott (1832–1897), an English land agent in Ireland. Nonviolent coercive tactics were successfully used against him in 1880.

Frisbee—a plastic concave disk used for various catching games.
Inspired by Mrs. Frisbie’s Pies of Bridgeport, Conn. The throwable metal pie tins produced by the pie company are said to have been the inspiration for the Frisbee.

Galvanize—to stimulate or treat with induced direct current; to startle into sudden activity; stimulate.
Named after Luigi Galvani (1737-1798). Galvani was an Italian physician who demonstrated electrical nerve impulses when he made a frog’s muscle twitch by connecting them to an electrostatic machine.

Guppy—a small, freshwater fish.
Named after R.J.L. Guppy (1836–1916) of Trinidad, who presented specimens of the fish to the British Museum.

Hooligan—a member of a street gang; a ruffian.
Named after Patrick Hooligan, a bouncer and thief who lived in Southwark, a 19th-century Irish slum in London.

Leotard—a stretchable one-piece garment worn by dancers, acrobats, and gymnasts.
Named after Jules Leotard (1838-1870), a French acrobat who created this athletic garment. Leotard is also credited with developing the sport of trapeze.

Maverick—an unbranded calf; an independent-minded person.
Named after Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), a Texas land baron, lawyer, and former mayor of San Antonio. Maverick once left a small herd of cattle to wander, which gave rise to the term maverick, meaning an unbranded calf.

Mesmerize—to spellbind, entrall, hypnotize.
Named after Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a German physician who theorized that there was a natural transfer of energy between animate and inanimate objects referred to as “animal magnetism” or “mesmerism.”

Pompadour—a man’s hairstyle in which the hair is swept back from the forehead without a parting; a woman’s hairstyle in which the hair is turned back off the forehead in a roll.
Named after Jeanne Antoinette Poisson de Pompadour (1721-1764), a French aristocrat and the mistress of the French King Louis XV. She was an influential patron of the arts and philosophy.

Shrapnel—fragments from bombs or shells.
Named after Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), a lieutenant in the British Royal artillery who developed an exploding cannonball.

Ragan readers, any other eponyms you would like to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, www.impertinentremarks.com.

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