7 Words You Didn’t Know Originated From Names
  • 4-minute read
  • 1st November 2022

7 Words You Didn’t Know Originated From Names

You may have heard that some surnames started as words associated with jobs (like Smith and Thatcher). But did you also know that certain words in the English language started as names?

We call these words eponyms, and they’re more common than you might think.

In today’s post, we look at 7 surprising words that originate from someone’s name and the etymology behind them.

1. Nicotine

Nicotine is an addictive chemical in tobacco products like cigarettes. Although the name sounds scientific, this word comes from a 14th-century French politician named Jean Nicot.

Nicot was an ambassador to Portugal and visited Brazil, where he sourced tobacco seeds and plants before sending them back to France. His association with the plant earned it the botanical name Nicotiana, which is where we get the word nicotine from.

2. Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a type of wireless technology that connects devices over short distances. It was invented in the 1990s, but the man it’s named after lived considerably earlier – in the 10th century.

King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson was a Scandinavian ruler credited with uniting the neighboring kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, whose iconic blue-gray tooth earned him his nickname.

Bluetooth’s developers chose his name as a secret codename for their new technology, as they aimed to unite devices in the same way this ancient king united countries. They liked it so much that the name stuck.

3. Silhouette

A silhouette is an outline, image, or shadow consisting of a single solid color. The word is often associated with artwork of a person’s profile, which is partly where it originates from.

Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister in the 1700s who created these solid black portraits as a hobby. But he was also known for his harsh economic policies, to the point where the phrase “à la silhouette” meant anything done cheaply, like the simple and cheap cutout art he liked.

4. Boycott

A boycott is a type of planned protest where people are encouraged not to financially support a person, group, or organization.

The word comes from Charles Cunningham Boycott, a British land manager who worked in Ireland.

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In 1880, an Irish political group called the Land League protested farmers’ high rent costs by demanding Boycott to reduce their rent by 25%. When he refused, the Land League told his tenants to avoid communicating with him or even picking his crops. This was the first time a boycott was used.

5. Draconian

The word draconian, which means unnecessarily cruel or severe, is easily associated with mythical dragons. But this word comes from a human: Draco, a 7th-century Greek lawmaker.

Draco established an unusually drastic legal code in Athens. His laws, which were said to be written in blood, required the death penalty for almost any offense. It’s no wonder this word comes with such harsh connotations.

6. Mesmerize

To mesmerize someone means to fix, hypnotize, or grab their full attention. This is a rare example of a verb that comes from a person’s name and has a strange story behind it.

Franz Anton Mesmer was a German doctor who, in the late 1700s, developed a theory called animal magnetism. He believed that a magnetic force flowed through all living things and could be manipulated by the planets, other magnetic forces, or through hypnosis. It was this final method that took on Mesmer’s name, leading to the definition of mesmerize we know today.

7. Jumbo

Our final eponym comes from an elephant’s name.

Jumbo was a captive African elephant who lived in the 1800s at the London Zoo. Nobody knows why he was given this name, which could be a combination of the Swahili words jambo (thing) and jumbe (leader).

In 1882, he was bought by the famous showman P.T. Barnum, and he appeared in many adverts for Barnum’s circus. As a result, Jumbo’s name became synonymous with spectacle and, later, with large in general. Just what you’d expect from an elephant.

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