Meet Mr Poinsettia (and the other real but forgotten people whose names we use every day)

Meet Mr Poinsettia (and the other real but forgotten people whose names we use every day)

A surprising number of English words are eponyms — they take their names from historical figures. Now MARTIN HANNAN has produced a guide to them

DRACONIAN

We look back to the Athens of between 2,300 and 2,700 years ago as the birthplace of so many decent concepts: democracy, drama, philosophy. Yet it was not all sweetness and light in Athens. The city was ruled by powerful families and was riven by blood feuds and governed by a series of punitive unofficial laws. Dracon, or Draco, of Athens, basically invented zero tolerance to deal with lawlessness.

The laws he laid down were extremely tough, so much so that they were reputed to be written in blood. Death was the punishment for a host of misdemeanours. His name lives on as a byword for harshness, and, when J. K. Rowling was looking for a name for the baddie in her Harry Potter series, she conjured up ‘Draco’ Malfoy.

BLUETOOTH

So how does a piece of contemporary wireless communication technology come to bear the name of a 10th-century king of two Viking nations

Good news: Swedish company Ericsson chose Bluebooth because the Danish 10th century King Harald Bluetooth had spread the gospel throughout Scandinavia

Good news: Swedish company Ericsson chose Bluebooth because the Danish 10th century King Harald Bluetooth had spread the gospel throughout Scandinavia

Harald Bluetooth (c.935-989) was King of Denmark who later joined his kingdom to that of Norway. He was responsible for spreading the gospel — a word meaning ‘good news’ — of Christianity across Scandinavia, so when Swedish company Ericsson wanted a name that signified good news and good communications for a wireless communications system, they chose Bluetooth.

PYRRHIC

Pyrrhus, King of Epirus (319-272BC,) won an important battle, but at great cost. He was a Greek who tried to unite the various states in Greece against Rome.

He led a Greek army into Italy and, at the Battle of Asculum in Italy in 279BC, he defeated a numerically superior Roman army but lost around 3,500 of his troops.

When he was congratulated on his triumph, he replied ‘one more victory like that will finish me’. From then on, such a costly win became known as a Pyrrhic victory.

THESPIAN

Call an actor a ‘luvvie’, and they will nearly always say: ‘No, I’m a thespian.’ It’s a profession which takes its name from an actor named Thespis, who lived in 6th-century Greece. He was the first documented luvvie — sorry, thespian — to win an award for acting.

It is not known whether he cried during his acceptance speech.

CHAUVINIST

Chauvinist originally meant excessively patriotic, and takes its roots from Nicolas Chauvin, who was supposedly — though some believe he never existed — a foot soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

Chauvin was distinguished by his blind patriotism, his belief in French superiority and his devotion to l’Empereur. The story goes that he was wounded 17 times in serving his country, and was presented with a Sabre of Honour by Napoleon.

In time, Chauvin’s excess of love for his country came to be applied to over-the-top zealotry of any kind.

GUPPY

Thereis surely not an aquarium on the planet which does not contain a guppy,but these fish would not have this name were it not for British naturalist Lechmere Guppy.

Something fishy: Guppies are named after a naturalist who caught the then unidentified fish off the coast of Trinidad

Something fishy: Guppies are named after a naturalist who caught the then unidentified fish off the coast of Trinidad

He was born in London in 1836, but later settled in Trinidad, where his father Robert had been mayor. In the seas around the island, he captured some small, unidentified fish and sent them to the British Museum for examination. The curator of zoology, a Dr Gunther, named them girardinus guppii in his honour.

LUDDITES

Ned Ludd is thought to have been a weaver who came from the village of Anstey just outside Leicester. In the late 18th century, he is said — either after being whipped for idleness, or because he was egged on by local youths — to have smashed up two knitting frame machines on which cloth was woven.

In the early 19th century, his name was taken up by the Luddites — a proletarian movement against new factory machines which cost workers their jobs — which carried out many acts of sabotage against machinery.

Thus, those averse to new technology are today called Luddites.

FALLOPIAN TUBES

Gabriele Falloppio (1523-62), born in Modena, is best known for being the first physician to identify the tubes which form part of the female reproductive system.

He is also credited with making the use of early condoms acceptable. He apparently had 1,000 men test them, and none contracted syphilis, which was rife at the time.

BUNKUM

It is a word that signifies nonsense — often spoken by politicians. And, in fact, ‘bunkum’ derives from a political source.

Felix Walker represented Buncombe County and other parts of North Carolina in the U.S. Congress. In 1820, he made a fatuous speech full of claptrap. He said he had made it for Buncombe, and thus Walker was commemorated in the eponym.

Bunk and debunk are derived from the same source.

POINSETTIA

Otherwise known as the Christmas Eve Flower, the plant is named after the man who introduced it to the U.S., Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851).

As an American ambassador he travelled to Chile, Argentina and Mexico. It was in Mexico that he came upon the plant which now bears his name.

Blooming: The poinsettia is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the flower to the U.S. after discovering it in Mexico

Blooming: The poinsettia is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the flower to the U.S. after discovering it in Mexico

He sent samples home to the U.S., where it became very popular as a Christmas gift because of its vivid red colour.

MAVERICK

NOT derived from the American TV series of that name, but a 19th-century Old West lawyer named Samuel Augustus Maverick, who allowed his 400 head of cattle to roam freely. Unbranded cattle in Texas thus became known as ‘mavericks’, and the word was soon applied to anyone who refused to conform.

Tasty: The name praline is derived from Cesar, Count of Plessis-Praslin, whose cook first dreamed up the nut-flavoured delicacy

Tasty: The name praline is derived from Cesar, Count of Plessis-Praslin, whose cook first dreamed up the nut-flavoured delicacy

PRALINE

Pralines differ in recipe from country to country, but generally they consist of crushed nuts in chocolate or syrup. The man who gave them their name was Cesar, Count of Plessis-Praslin (1598-1675), whose cook dreamed up the first powdered nut, sweet-flavoured delicacy.

NICOTINE

When an obscure French ambassador to Portugal in the 16th century sent tobacco seeds to Paris, he could not have known he would end up giving his name to a substance which some people consider a source of pleasure, while others deem it an addictive poison.

Jean Nicot de Villemain had been given the seeds as a gift and then grew them in the garden of the French embassy.

DUNCE

John Duns Scotus (1265-1398) was no fool, having been educated at Oxford and Cambridge. Though he founded a school of philosophy, rival philosophers who controlled the church’s thinking dismissed him as second rate — and those who followed him were soon known as ‘dunces’.

Harvey Wallbangers and Tam O’Shanters by Martin Hannan is published by John Blake.