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10 Surprising and Amusing Eponyms

by Reggie Neeson
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

A good way to live on forever is to become a word. Well, it’s a way for your name to live on, anyway. Chances are, the origin and your legacy will be completely forgotten. People will likely forget the word was ever a name at all.

Here are ten surprising eponyms and the unique people they are named for.

Related: 10 Incredible People With Incredibly Unfortunate Names

10 Guy

Word Origin: Guy

Imagine your name becoming a generic term for a person. Well, that is exactly what happened to Guy Fawkes. Though it was quite outside of his main aim of trying to blow up Parliament. Fawkes came to fame in the 17th century when he and a small band of Catholic rebels failed at this very task. Now he lives on in the British tradition of bonfire night, the comic “V for Vendetta,” and in a mask people wear when they wish to remain anonymous.

Fawkes was not central to the plan to destroy Parliament. He is remembered because he was the one caught, arrested, and executed. A tradition arose of burning his effigy on the date of the failed attempt. In the run-up to Bonfire Night, children would dress up in ragged clothes, wheel around the soon-to-be-alight figure, and knock on doors asking for “a penny for the guy.”

The term came to be used both for the effigies and the beggars. By the 1830s, it had come to mean a scruffily dressed person. It spread from Britain to the U.S. and morphed again. By 1847, it was a casual term for a man, scruffy or otherwise. Any connection to treason and gunpowder plots was soon forgotten.[1]

9 Nicotine

Etymology of Nicotine (Origin of Nicotine) and how it was Thought to be Healthy

Jean Nicot de Villmain probably did not foresee a day when his name would be associated with patches and gum. He was a French diplomat and came across tobacco plants on a mission to Portugal to negotiate the marriage of Princess Margaret of Valois to King Sebastian of Portugal (respectively, six and five years old at the time). Just a typical day in the office for your average 16th-century French ambassador.

He presented the plant to the French court with instructions on using it as a medicine. It was believed that it would cure headaches and ward off other illnesses. It became wildly popular in France. Although the marriage fell through, Nicot became a celebrity credited with introducing tobacco to France.

Botanists started using the term “Nicotiana tabacum” as the official name for the plant. Later, when the chemical nicotine itself was isolated from the plant by German chemist Wilhelm Heinrich in 1828, he named it after this plant genus. He wisely believed it to be a poison rather than medicine. The widespread use as an insecticide should have been a big clue.[2]

8 Sideburns

Sideburns: A hairy history | BBC Ideas

Ambrose Burnside, a general in the American Civil War, was not known for his great military strategy. He was, however, known for his distinctive hairstyle. Burnside boasted an impressive pair of large fluffy sideburns that framed his face and blended seamlessly into a fine large mustache.

This luxurious hairstyle made him a household name, and the term “Burnside whiskers” could be found in print soon after his death. An account from the Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, PA) in 1866 notes that the style was so attractive it had ladies swooning after a group of thieves, distracting them from all the honest men around.

Soon the words were flipped to mimic the previously used name of side-whiskers. “Sideburns” was in print by 1875 and really caught on as the style became a sign of counter-culture throughout various periods of U.S. cultural history.[3]

7 Nachos

Food History: Nachos

Nacho is a common nickname, short for Ignacio. The story goes that this dish was created by a maitre d’ named Ignacio Anaya Garcia. Working in a popular restaurant in Piedras Negras, across the border from a military base in Eagle Pass, Texas, he was on shift when a group of American military wives stopped by.

Unfortunately, the chef was out, and Ignacio, not wanting the women to go hungry, went into the kitchen himself to make something out of the ingredients he could find. He grabbed totopos (fried corn tortilla chips), Colby cheese, and sliced jalapeños and stuck them in the oven. The women loved it and referred to it as Nacho’s special. Nacho himself eventually moved to Eagle Pass and opened a restaurant called “Nacho’s,” and Pedras Negras celebrated itself as the birthplace of the dish. The town now celebrates a yearly “Nacho Day.”

Nachos became widespread after their introduction at baseball stadiums by Frank Liberto. By this point, the dish was famous in restaurants across the state. Liberto began selling them at his stadium in Arlington, Texas, with one important adjustment. He created a longer shelf life by inventing a cheese that “could survive a nuclear blast” as a topping rather than regular cheese. This dish became a U.S. staple at ball games and beyond. Unfortunately, the connection to Ignacio and his hometown became somewhat forgotten.[4]

6 Salmonella

Etymology of Salmonella (Origin of Salmonella)

If you don’t want people to remember you for your fantastic food or hair, you could always get a food-poison-inducing bacteria named after you. Salmonella was named for a veterinary surgeon, Daniel Elmer Salmon.

Salmon led a distinguished career. He was the first person in the United States to be awarded a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. His research made considerable contributions to the study of infectious diseases in animals, especially cattle.

It was actually Salmon’s research assistant, Theobald Smith, who discovered the bacteria. However, Salmon was notorious for not allowing others credit and did not name Smith in the published research. Believing it to be the cause of cholera in hogs, Salmon and Smith called it “Hog-cholera bacillus.” (LINK 10) Later, when researcher Joseph Leon Lignières discovered what it was, he recognized it as the pathogen that Salmon had discovered and named it Salmonella in his honor. We’re personally just glad that Lignières never tried to honor us.a href=”” rel=”noopener noreferrer” target=”_blank”>[5]

5 Uzi

Biography of Uzi Gal inventor of the Uzi submachine gun

This Israeli-made machine gun was given the name of the developer Usiel Gal, or “Uzi.” Uziel had quite a history with firearms, having been arrested for illegal possession and sentenced to six years in prison, a term he served only half of. It was here that he studied mechanical engineering, a life-changing decision.

He was born in Germany but escaped Nazi rule—first moving to the United Kingdom and later to Israel. He became an Israeli officer and began work on the Uzi, which was then adopted by the army. The weapon is now used throughout the world in police and special forces. The design had many features that made it easier and safer to use than previous iterations.

Uziel, however, did not want the gun to be named for him and submitted a request asking for the weapon not to bear his name. This request was denied. Even weirder, this wasn’t his original name. He was born Gotthard Glas and changed his name after fleeing Germany. So it could well have been “Gotthards” being fired instead.[6]

4 Leotard

Why Do We Wear These? (GAME)

Jules Léotard had been training to become a lawyer when he decided to run away and join the circus instead. His father had owned a gym, and Léotard had practiced on a trapeze there. He developed a pioneering act that amazed audiences in Paris, then London, earning him huge crowds and an even larger salary.

Part of his success came down to the costume he made himself. First called a maillot, but later becoming known as the leotard, the design allowed him more freedom of movement and let him show off his desirable physique. Originally the garment was made from wool and meant only for men, but the design was so perfect that it quickly became the standard for acrobats and gymnasts. From there, it spread to other areas, such as ballet, and today is used by athletes worldwide.[7]

3 Bloomers

How bloomers became a feminist fashion statement | BBC Ideas

Today “bloomers” means an old-fashioned and loose-fitting pair of knickers. However, this item of clothing was not named for its designer. It was named after social reformer Amelia J. Bloomer, an activist supporting both the suffragette and the temperance movements in the United States. She contributed to the fight for women’s rights throughout her life, including starting the first newspaper by and for women.

One of her key reforms was fighting for the idea that women should have less restrictive clothing. To aid her mission, she created a new outfit called the Bloomer. This unfortunately caught widespread derision by the press being called a mix of women’s, men’s, and children’s clothes. This, in turn, led to harassment on the street.

Fortunately, other outfits became acceptable over time as women gained more freedoms. Bloomer is still regarded as a key part of the feminist movement, if not one of the most famous. Over time, the word “bloomer” had an unfortunate transformation in its definition. Despite her contributions, her name is now a term for large and baggy women’s underwear.[8]

2 Saxophone

History & making of the saxophone

Belgian instrument maker Antoine Joseph “Adolphe” Sax gave his name to the instrument he designed in 1840. He added the Greek -phonos, which means “voiced, sounding.” He was not the only instrument maker in the family either. His father had a go at making his own instrument which he called the “Saxhorn.” It didn’t have as cool a name, and it wasn’t nearly as popular.

Unfortunately, Sax was not lucky in life. In fact, we almost didn’t have the iconic saxophone as he nearly died several times. These incidents included events such as accidentally drinking a bowl of acid when mistaking it for milk, being hit on the head with a stone and nearly drowning when he fell into a river, receiving serious burns from a gunpowder explosion, and swallowing a pin.

Worse still, legal battles from rival instrument makers led to 20 years of trouble defending his patent and bankrupted him several times. He was a controversial figure who seemed to collect enemies who tried to thwart him. Although his inventions essentially created a musical instrument industry in France, he died in poverty in Paris.[9]

1 Spoonerism

Language Slip-Ups: Freudian Slips And Other Common Language Errors | WordPlay

A spoonerism is the term given to the accidental can make in accidentally swapping the letters or sounds of two words, often creating a new phrase—like banging your bunny phone on a table, or expecting pace fainting at a birthday party. William Archibald Spooner, an ordained deacon and a lecturer at New College, Oxford, was known as a kindly and learned gentleman but also as a little muddled.

He, however, did not enjoy becoming well known for confusing his words. This might possibly be because he did not actually make that many. Though many spoonerisms have been attributed to him, they may have been ascribed by mischievous students. His own daughter states she never heard him say one.

By all reports, he was an eccentric man who did seem prone to confusion. Other reports include him stopping a colleague and asking, “Was it you or your brother who was killed in the Great War?” So it makes sense, too, that he was the kind of man who would say, “You have hissed my mystery lectures; you have tasted a whole worm; you must leave at once by the town drain.” Whether he likes it or not, he is honored still in the term “spoonerism.”[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen