I. What is an Eponym?
An eponym refers to a person or thing after which something else is named.
- Napoleon is the eponym of the Napoleonic Code.
A person or thing’s name can come to be associated with the name of another character, person, product, object, activity, or even a discovery.
The word eponym (pronounced ep–uh-nim) came into use around 1833 and comes from the Greek word, “eponymos”. Broken down, its construction is as follows: “epi”, meaning “upon or after” and “onyma”, meaning “name”. Simply put: “named after”.
II. Examples of Eponym
Eponyms are prominent in our culture, though we may take some for granted. Here are a few eponyms used in everyday speech:
- The phrase “sideburns” actually comes from Ambrose Burnside, an American jack-of-all-trades and first president of the NRA. His unique hairstyling created of a new word!
- “Graham crackers” were named after Sylvester Graham, a reverend who promoted the vegetarian diet and the firm bread of coarsely-ground flour we enjoy to this day.
- The “Mason jar” is named after John Landis Mason, a tinsmith who invented the jar popular jar in 1858.
- As tissues have come to be known as Kleenex, the brand name Kleenex is an eponym as well.
- If you are said to have an “Achilles’ heel”, it means that you have a weakness of some kind. This eponym goes back to the Greek myths and to the Trojan War. The hero Achilles was dipped in the river Styx by his mother, making him invulnerable, except for the part of his heel where his mother held him. He was eventually killed by being wounded in his heel.
- The Dewey Decimal System, used in most school libraries, was named for its inventor, Melvil Dewey.
- Europa was a woman in Greek mythology, after whom the continent of Europe is named.
- If someone asks you for your “John Hancock,” they are asking you for your signature. John Hancock was one of the signers of the Declarations of Independence and had a particularly memorable signature.
Eponyms can be derived by the person themselves or by others. As they come to be used over time, sometimes their interesting origins can be forgotten or taken for granted.
III. Types of Eponyms
There are six structural types of eponyms:
- Simple eponyms are eponyms in which a proper noun has been fully adopted and become the common named of something else.
- The Greek figure Atlas holds the world on his shoulders. We now use his name, atlas, as the common term for a book of maps.
- The watt is the common name for a unit of electric power named after its developer, James Watt.
- Compounds and attributive eponyms mix names and descriptions.
- The loganberry is named after a US lawyer, James Logan.
- A Mieses opening is a move in a game of chess that is named after Jacques Mieses, a grandmaster of the game.
- Possessives are written in the possessive tense and attribute ownership to their namesake.
- Newton’s laws of physics are named for the physicist, Sir Isaac Newton.
- The Strait of Magellan is named for Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer.
- Suffix-based derivatives are eponyms in which the name of the person is combined with a suffix to make a new word.
- Mesmerism is named after a German physician, Franz Mesmer.
- Narcissism is named after the mythical character, Narcissus.
- Clippings are eponyms in which a name has been shortened or adapted.
- The word “dunce” is a combination of the middle and last names of Johns Duns Scotus. He was a friar and a theologian who was considered to be a fool.
- A “gal” is the name of a unit of measurement of acceleration shortened from the name of the scientist Galileo Galiei.
- Blends are eponyms in which two words are blended together to make a new one.
- The word “gerrymander” is a combination of the name Elbridge Gerry and the word salamander, and refers to an unfair practice of dividing voting districts in a city.
- The term “Reagonomics” is a combination of the name Reagan and the word economics, and refers to the policies of US President Ronald Reagan.
III. The Importance of Using Eponyms
Eponyms show how related terms can become names for specific things. Inventors, founders, and scientists are often eponymous people, inspiring the eponymic terms that come to describe their inventions, products, or discoveries. Eponyms provide those who have created or imagined something with the power of a name and idea that outlives them. They also highlight people who have characterized entire styles, eras, or studies.
IV. Examples of Eponym in Literature
Eponyms appear everywhere in literature.
A vast number of titles are eponymous, as literary works are often named after main characters. Here are some examples:
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- Emma by Jane Austen
- Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
In addition to being titles of works, many characters from literature have gone on to have their own eponymous new lives in our language.
The original Goody-Two Shoes, was a character in a nursery rhyme. Now we use that name as a derogatory term for someone who is proud of always doing everything right.
We know a grinch as someone who is stingy and gets pleasure from ruining other people’s fun. The original Grinch comes from the Dr. Seuss children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The word “panic” is actually derived from the Greek god Pan who was known for sneaking up on herds of sheep and goats to surprise them. Easily scared, they would break into uncontrollable fear, also known as panic.
V. Eponym in Pop Culture
Eponyms can be found throughout pop culture as famous folks become names of things they’ve come up with, coined, or popularized.
Just like literary titles, movie titles are also eponymous. Here are some examples of movies, many of which were based on books, so they are doubly eponymous:
- Forrest Gump
- Mary Poppins
- Jerry Maguire
- Good Will Hunting
- The entire Harry Potter series
The music industry is one of the most eponymous industries in our culture. Virtually every band has a self-titled, eponymous, album or song.
The major car company was named after Sakichi Toyoda, the company’s founder and father of the Japanese industrial revolution.
VI. Related Terms
Eponym is not the only term used when discussing the naming of things. Here are a few related terms:
Like eponym, antonomasia concerns the names of famous people. Whereas eponym uses celebrity’s names for products, antonomasia provides celebrities with names that describe them, often highlighting their most prominent features. Here is an example of antonomasia versus eponym:
The Philosopher for Aristotle
Aristotelian for Aristotle-related studies
Whereas eponyms are often names given to things by people, epithets are names given to people based on descriptions. Epithets, also known as bynames, further describe prominent figures such as royalty.
Alexander the Great
Eponyms, antonomasia, and epithet all involve the naming of certain people or things based on origins or characteristics.