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8 Surprising Words Named After Real People

Words named after specific people are known as eponyms. After enough time passes, the namesake is often forgotten while the word sticks around, so many eponyms no longer even register as someone’s name. These eight eponyms are among the most surprising, and cover subjects from musical instruments to facial hair to fuel.

Boycott

Charles C. Boycott was a British landlord in Ireland in the 19th century. Most Irish land at the time was owned by wealthy British people, and poor Irish farmers, unable to own land, had to pay rent. With a famine in effect, the farmers couldn’t pay, so they organized and asked landowners for a 25% reduction in rent in 1880. When Boycott responded by trying to evict his tenants, they cut off all communication with him and drove off everyone who worked on his estate. “Boycott” almost instantly came to mean a refusal to buy, interact with, or participate, and the term traveled quickly across Europe (it reached France as boycotterthe very same year). The British Parliament passed a set of tenant protections in 1881.

Cardigan

A cardigan is any knitted sweater that fastens in the front, whether by buttons, zippers, or toggles. It’s named for British Army General James Brudenell, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, who famously led the troops during the Crimean War’s notorious Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. He was so concerned with his regiment’s wardrobe that he used his own money to make sure they were properly outfitted, and what we now know as cardigans were among the garments he supplied.

Diesel

Diesel as a surname predates any action star’s stage name. Rudolf Diesel was a German engineer who invented what we know now as the diesel engine. It’s named for him, although he certainly doesn’t come to mind every time someone pulls into a gas station. Still, “diesel” was written as a proper noun (that is, capitalized) until at least the 1930s. The fuel started being known as just “diesel” instead of “diesel oil” in the 1950s.

Saxophone

Belgian French instrument maker Adolphe Sax was trying to improve the tone of a bass clarinet when he landed on the most popular instrument to bear his name: the saxophone. Lesser-known Sax inventions, developed collaboratively between Sax and his father, include the saxhorn (a kind of bugle), the saxo-tromba (somewhere between a trombone and a trumpet), and the saxtuba (an elegant-looking curved horn).

Silhouette

The silhouette eventually made its way into serious art, but the term started out as kind of a joke. It’s named for notoriously stingy 18th-century French politician Étienne de Silhouette, but there are a few stories about why. One is that it’s a jab at how cheap he was (since silhouettes were an inexpensive way to produce a likeness); another is that he himself made shadow portraits and covered his walls with them. One source claims it’s a joke about how briefly he held the office of controller-general. Regardless, à la Silhouette came to mean “on the cheap” for a while until the art style became trendy and sought-after.

Mesmerize

In the 18th century, German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer developed a controversial and unproven therapy called mesmerism, which used magnets to pull patients into a trance state. Despite the fact that it was eventually shunned by the medical establishment in both Austria and France, some physicians used his methods to put patients under for surgery before anesthesia existed. Proponents of mesmerism dwindled when hypnotherapy started to become popular, but the practice left us with two common terms. One is “animal magnetism,” the term Mesmer used for the force he could manipulate with his magnets and that now usually refers to sex appeal. The other is “mesmerize.”

Shrapnel

In the late 18th century, British military officer Henry Shrapnel invented a new kind of ammunition, a hollow shell with bullets and an explosive charge inside. When the charge detonated, the shell would scatter bullets and debris over the battlefield. Eventually, projectiles had charges so explosive that the shell casing was destructive enough without the bullets inside — so while the specific item invented by Shrapnel fell out of use after World War II, the term stuck around to mean dangerous fragments of shells, bombs, or debris.

Sideburns

Sideburns — strips of facial hair that grow down the side of the face — used to be known as side-whiskers or side-hair. One prominent side-whisker-haver was Ambrose E. Burnside, a Civil War general; his distinctive facial hair connected in the middle via mustache, with no beard beneath. This style of facial hair is known as the Burnside.At some point, the fact that Burnside had “side” in his name caused a mish-mash of “Burnside” and “side-whiskers” into “sideburns.”

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