John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, is famous for a particular type of obscurity. You may know nothing about him other than that he was saved from oblivion by the way he liked to snack—with a slab of salt beef stuffed between two pieces of toast. He is famous, in other words, for being the obscure figure behind a word that people often assume was not named after anyone. The earl might be the patron saint of a condition we might call anonyponomy. He is a man who is almost anonymous despite the eponymous use of his name in everyday language. He is not alone, though, in this limbo. As the examples here show, there are delightful, remarkable, and ridiculous figures and stories lurking everywhere in our speech.
Samuel Augustus Maverick was a Yale graduate, lawyer, Mexican War veteran, and San Antonio mayor who owned so much Texas real estate they named a county after him. In the mid-1840s, Maverick accepted a herd of cattle in exchange for a debt and, not caring much for livestock, neglected them to the point of allowing calves to wander about unbranded, a cardinal sin in the free-ranging days before barbed wire. The lack of a brand became a brand in itself: Whenever anybody found a stray calf with no markings, they said, “That there’s a maverick.” Metaphorical uses soon followed.
In the wee morning hours of Nov. 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested in a rented storeroom under the House of Lords that was suspiciously packed with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Under torture, Guy confessed to being part of a Roman Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King James I, his family, and both houses of Parliament; he was hanged.
For more than 400 years, Guy Fawkes Day has been celebrated across the United Kingdom with fireworks and bonfires. On these crisp, late-autumn nights, children parade effigies of Fawkes through the streets chanting, “What shall we do with him? Burn him!” Upon reaching the great central bonfire, the kids toss “the guy” into the flames and then, if they are traditional, follow it with an effigy of the pope. Etymologically speaking, a “guy” came to mean someone of grotesque appearance, which came to include everyone, at least everyone in America.
John Duns Scotus was a Scottish theologian and one of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages. An ardent follower of St. Francis, Duns Scotus spent his career at the universities of Oxford, Paris, and Cologne. He provided the definitive argument on the then culture-war issue of the Immaculate Conception, after which it became Catholic dogma that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without sin. For his delicately shaded approach to this and similar difficult issues, he earned the nickname Dr. Subtilis, and his theories held sway from his 1308 death through the end of the Middle Ages.
Duns Scotus’ followers, the Scotists, dominated theology until another gang of scholars, the Thomists (after Thomas Aquinas), encroached on their turf. These new philosophers ridiculed the hairsplitting sophistry of Dr. Subtilis and his Dunsmen (pronounced DUNCE-men), who were impervious to learning anything new or different. In the intellectual rumble of the Renaissance, the elegant theories of Duns Scotus were knifed on account of his blockhead followers. To be called a “dunce” became the worst insult a would-be man of letters could receive.
Once upon a time, (the middle of the seventh century), there was a young English princess names Æthelthryth, or, as the Normans would later call her, Audrey. Princess Audrey was widowed after a marriage that, we are told, was never consummated. She took a vow of chastity, but her father the king required that Audrey marry again; her new hubby, understandably less than thrilled about her promise to God, bribed the local bishop to make the vow go away. The bishop instead helped Audrey escape, but hubby got wise and gave chase. Divine intervention in the form of a prolonged high tide provided Audrey cover for her getaway, causing her husband to give up and find himself a more ready gal to marry. Becoming a nun, Audrey founded the Abbey of Ely. Many years later, as she lay dying after a life of good works, Audrey developed a red, burning tumor around her neck, which she gladly accepted as punishment for the many frivolous necklaces she had worn in her youth. As a reward for Audrey’s extreme devotion to not having sex, she was sainted, and her feast day was celebrated with an annual fair held at Ely.
In a show of medieval irony, a certain kind of frilly silk neckerchief was known as St. Audrey lace, or “Taudrey Lace.” This item was a top seller at the St. Audrey fair, especially among “country wenches” who bought the cheapest and gaudiest varieties, paying little heed to Audrey’s cautionary tale about the link between necklaces and neck tumors.
Pantaleon was an unmarried physician and citizen of the pagan Roman empire who could, simply by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, perform such miraculous acts as healing the blind. Jealous, Pantaleon’s fellow doctors denounced him to the emperor, who asked the good doctor to give up this Christian nonsense—whereupon Pantaleon proved the power of God by curing a man of paralysis. Having witnessed the trick, the emperor condemned Pantaleon to death for practicing black magic.
As is the case with many Christian martyrs, death was the beginning of a second life. Pantaleon became the patron saint of bachelors and physicians, and his name could be invoked to cure a variety of ailments. When the Black Death swept through Europe, St. Pantaleon’s stock went up dramatically in places like hard-hit Venice, where a spectacular church was dedicated to him. “San Pantalone” became so identified with Venice that his name was borrowed by the commedia dell’arte for the character of the prototypically greedy Venetian merchant.
The commedia dell’arte had story lines harking back to Roman times, but was played out as improvisational farce. Each actor of the troupe dressed in mask and costume as one of a repertory of stock characters, such as Arlecchino, easily recognizable in his trademark diamond-patch outfit and better known to us by his Frenchified name, Harlequin. The costume signature of Pantalone was a pair of red leggings that reached the feet, a distinctively Venetian manner of cladding the legs that audiences outside the region found remarkable. Over the years and in various languages, the character’s name was borrowed to describe varying fashions of long trousers and related garments. By the mid-1800s, the Anglicized name Pantaloon had comfortably been shortened to “pants.”
Pity poor Janus, once the mightiest Roman deity of all. He was the father of the gods—until his worshippers fell all over themselves for the flashier, sexier Greek pantheon and left Janus to be the god of doors. Janus was well suited to his task, at least, having a face on both the front and back of his head. Those who attended to the god of doors—that is, doorkeepers—came to be called janitors.
The original wimp was J. Wellington Wimpy, the porkpie-hatted mooch of the Popeye cartoons, whose perennial gambit “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” never quite succeeded.
E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre, the comic strip in which Popeye first appeared, is remarkable for its contribution to the lexicon. In addition to “wimp,” Segar is also responsible for the word “goon,” from his hairy warrior woman Alice the Goon, and probably the vehicle name Jeep, after Olive Oyl’s pet Eugene the Jeep, a magical and resourceful creature from the fourth dimension whose entire vocabulary consisted of the single word “Jeep!”
The Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized in the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, was a big fat mistake. A miscommunicated order during the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaclava (1854) led to a cavalry assault so foolhardy that the enemy Russian troops thought the onrushing Brits had to be drunk. The doomed but brave sally sparked the English imagination in a romantic period when the doomed but brave was much celebrated.
The leader of the charge managed to make it through unscathed, and went home to England a hero, an unlikely outcome for James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan had risen through the army via family connections and purchasing commissions; he certainly hadn’t done it by being an upstanding citizen or military man.
In one respect, however, Cardigan treated his subordinates splendidly. Wanting his 11th Hussars to be the spiffiest regiment in the Queen’s army, Cardigan spent an estimated 10,000 pounds a year of his personal fortune outfitting them. Reportedly, this included a knitted, button-down vest of Cardigan’s own invention that he and his men wore under their battle uniforms to stave off the Crimean cold. Whether true or the fantasy of an enterprising sweater salesman, the story was widely believed, and with everyone wanting to copy the heroes of the Light Brigade, the cardigan became the fashion of the day. What would Mr. Rogers have done without them?
In the 1930s, a couple of drunk Yale students munched down a pie and started playing catch with the leftover tin plate. The game took off, and soon the whole campus was eating pies and playing the new sport. The students’ pastry of choice was made by Mrs. Frisbie’s Pies of Bridgeport, Conn.; it’s unknown whether this preference speaks to the quality of her pastry or the aerodynamics of her tins, which came embossed with the company name.
Mrs. Mary Frisbie was likely amused by this tossing around of her plates; certainly, her bakeries were selling a lot of pies—80,000 a day in 1956. On the other side of the country there was a guy who would’ve envied her: Fred Morrison had created a disk designed specifically for flying, but no one was buying them. Trying to cash in on the UFO craze, Morrison released the Pipco Flyin-Saucer, then the Pluto Platter, which caught the eyes of the Wham-O corporation. Wham-O executives had recently created the biggest fad America had ever seen, the Hula Hoop, selling 25 million units in four months. They purchased Morrison’s designs, realizing why success eluded him: His names all stunk. They soon learned there was already a better name for a flying disk—Frisbie—in a place where the sport was wildly popular. Wham-O decided to call its plastic version the same thing, but to trademark the name, it changed the spelling to Frisbee. (Very tricky.) The Frisbee wound up being Wham-O’s most popular and enduring product.
Thomas Crapper is a man yet to receive his due. Most reputable arbiters of etymology deem urban legend the idea that he had anything to do with the word “crapper.” To be sure, the word “crap” predates Mr. Crapper. Crappa was a medieval Latin term meaning “chaff,” from which developed many variations, all generally meaning something left over. Crapper as a last name similarly has agricultural roots: It is a variation on Cropper.
The first usage of “crap” in regards to excrement was recorded in 1846, too early for it to have anything to do with Thomas Crapper, who was not yet 10. Young Crapper, however, would grow up to be an early purveyor of the flush toilet. His London firm manufactured thousands of such toilets, all emphatically marked CRAPPER’S. American servicemen visiting London during the Great War thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen, and, according to one theory, brought back with them a new word.
It does seem fair to question, however, just how a plumbing-fixtures manufacturer came by so serendipitous a surname. Fate? Or was it a case of nominative determinism, in which Thomas’ surname steered him into his life’s work? Or did Thomas choose the name Crapper for professional advantage? That would show some serious dedication to marketing.
From the book Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words by John Bemelmans Marciano. ©2009 by John Bemelmans Marciano. Used with permission.