Fromnicotineto shrapnel to silhouette, learn about 10 everyday words that you may not have known are namesakes of real people from history.
While a lieutenant in the British Royal Artillery, England’s Henry Shrapnel spent years of his time and a portion of his fortune trying to invent an even deadlier weapon of war. The artillery officer’s self-funded experiments in the 1780s resulted in the development of a hollowed cannonball filled with lead shot and a small charge that could explode in mid-air over enemy lines to rain down a deadly burst of bullets. Shrapnel named his invention “spherical case shot,” but the exploding cannonballs—those “bombs bursting in air” enshrined in “The Star-Spangled Banner”—quickly came to bear his name. In the early 1800s, the British Army developed a cylindrical version of a shrapnel shell, and eventually the projectiles inside became unnecessary as the splintering shell casings proved even more lethal. Even after the development of high-explosive ammunition rendered shrapnel shells obsolete, the word “shrapnel” endures to describe any fragmenting artillery shards.
Once known primarily as a British military hero of the Crimean War, the name of James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, now endures thanks to a cozy sweater. Following orders to attack the well-defended Russian artillery during the 1854 Battle of Balaclava, Lord Cardigan led the Charge of the Light Brigade, which would be immortalized in a poem by Alfred Tennyson. Although his cavalry was decimated by the Russian guns, the British major general was hailed as a national hero back in Britain for the gallantry of his soldiers. The fashion-conscious earl reportedly tapped into his personal fortune to outfit his soldiers and designed a knitted, woolen waistcoat with an open front worn by himself and his officers to stay warm during the Russian winter. The earl’s popularity led the Cardigan jacket—and later the Cardigan sweater—to become a fashion staple on both sides of the Atlantic.
Charles Boycott was not a popular man in Ireland in 1880. The former British army captain served as an estate manager in County Mayo as unrest grew over the land system through which absentee landlords in England grew rich at the expense of the Irish tenants working their land. With fears of another famine growing, the Irish National Land League demanded that Boycott and other land agents reduce their rents. When Boycott refused and continued to carry out evictions, the Land League responded with a nonviolent protest of social ostracization. Local workers refused to harvest his crops. Shops wouldn’t serve him. Neighbors ignored him. The mailman refused to deliver letters to him. Boycott was forced to hire armed guards to protect workers he imported from the north of Ireland to reap his crops, and his name soon became synonymous with the protest tactic employed against him.
There was nothing dumb about John Duns Scotus, a 13th-century Scottish philosopher and theologian who spent 13 years at the University of Oxford and was chair of theology at the University of Paris. One of the most important theologians of the High Middle Ages, the ordained priest and member of the Franciscan Order backed the pope against European royals who advocated the divine right of kings. Two centuries after his death, the teachings of Scotus and his followers, who rejected Renaissance humanism, fell out of favor during the English Reformation of the 1500s. At that time the word “dunce” came to mean someone ignorant or incapable of scholarship. Pope John Paul II beatified Scotus in 1993.
The 18th-century German physician Franz Mesmer devised the theory of “animal magnetism,” believing that an invisible fluid in the body behaved according to the laws of magnetism and that obstacles in the fluid’s flow resulted in diseases. Mesmer theorized that a trained person could manipulate the fluid and remove those blockages through therapies that included holding the thumbs of patients or putting them into trances by staring into their eyes. While the treatments, which became known as mesmerism, proved effective in some instances, a royal commission convened by France’s King Louis XVI that included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin—who lent his name to the guillotine—found no evidence of animal magnetism. Mesmer’s theory led to the development of hypnotism and contributed “mesmerize” to the popular vocabulary.
After Jules Leotard passed his law exams, he took an unusual career path and joined the circus. The French acrobat, credited with inventing the aerial trapeze act in 1859, starred at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris and inspired the 1867 George Leybourne song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Newspapers described Leotard as “a splendid specimen of manly beauty, a perfect figure united to a strikingly handsome face.” In order to show off that physique—and eliminate the safety hazards posed by loose clothing on the trapeze—Leotard designed a tight-fitting, one-piece knitted garment with long sleeves that gave him greater freedom of movement. Leotard called his audacious outfit a “maillot.” Within a few decades after the acrobat’s death, it became known as a “leotard.”
When French diplomat and scholar Jean Nicot returned to Paris in 1561 from his stint as an ambassador to Portugal, he returned with an addictive plant discovered in the New World that caused a sensation in the French royal court. Nicot had been introduced to tobacco during his time in Lisbon, where it was crushed into powder and used as a remedy for a variety of illnesses, including cancer. After demonstrating the inhalation of powdered tobacco to the queen mother, Catherine de Medici, as a way to cure her headaches, snuffing became a popular activity in Paris. In 1753 Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus named the genus of tobacco cultivars “Nicotiana” in his honor. The active ingredient in tobacco, first isolated in 1828, was also named “nicotine” after the French diplomat.
Samuel Maverick was born in South Carolina, attended Yale University and studied law in Virginia, but it was his years in Texas that ultimately made him a household name. A two-time mayor of San Antonio who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836 and was holed up in the Alamo just days before its fateful battle, Maverick had his name enter the popular lexicon in 1867 because of his refusal as a land baron to follow the conventional practice of having his cattle branded. His nonconformity may have had less to do with a stubborn independent streak, however, than his lack of interest in ranching and the cattle, which were given to him as payment by an old debtor. The term “maverick” initially meant not just a fiercely independent person but a “calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand.” Maverick’s grandson, U.S. Representative Maury Maverick, also contributed to the political lexicon by coining the word “gobbledygook” in 1944 to describe meaningless words in political memos.
The 19th-century Austrian writer and journalist Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch might have found “Fifty Shades of Grey” a page-turner. In 1869 he signed a contract with his mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, making him her slave for six months—but only as long as she wore fur as often as possible. The writer used his experience as inspiration for his 1870 novella “Venus in Furs,” which featured a main character who asked to be degraded by his dominatrix. In 1886 Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined the term “masochism” to describe the derivation of sexual gratification from physical pain or humiliation inflicted on oneself or by another. “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly “Masochism”, because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings,” he wrote. Sigmund Freud believed masochists also had an impulse for sadism—gratification from inflicting, rather than experiencing pain, itself an eponym of Marquis de Sade coined by Krafft-Ebing—and combined them in a new word: sadomasochism.
The shadow profiles cut from black paper that became a popular art form in the 1700s and 1800s bear the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister known for pinching pennies. As France’s deficit spiraled out of control during the Seven Years’ War with Great Britain, Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of King Louis XV and an eponym herself thanks to her distinctive hairstyle, recommended Silhouette as finance minister in 1759. Silhouette’s tenure lasted mere months, and the parsimonious minister became an object of Parisian ridicule for his austerity measures. The phrase “a la Silhouette” came to describe doing something on the cheap, and the financier’s name was transferred to those paper cuttings, which were looked down upon by elites as inexpensive alternatives to paintings and sculptures.
a single-reed woodwind with a conical bore
It’s pretty clear that the sousaphone was named after John Phillip Sousa, but the saxophone is named after its inventor, a Belgian musical instrument designer named Adolphe Sax.
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