5 Types of Eponyms

By Mark Nichol

Humans so frequently find proper names — the names of specific people, places, or things — to be so useful for describing generic objects or concepts or qualities that they co-opt the proper names, sometimes capitalized, and sometimes lowercased. Here are just some of the innumerable examples in English:

1. Product Eponyms

Ubiquitous, market-defining product names — often to the consternation of the companies that market them — frequently enter the vernacular (in lowercase form) to describe any product in that class. Among these are aspirin, kleenex, and xerox, though other, more surprising examples include escalator, heroin, and zipper. In the United Kingdom (but not in the United States), biro and hoover are eponymous terms for pens and vacuum cleaners, respectively.

2. Historical and Geographical Eponyms

Eponyms appear in the names of many geopolitical entities (Europe, Colombia, San Francisco) and geographical or nautical locations (Tasmania, the Bering Sea), either crediting a person with their discovery or otherwise associating them with a person or a personification.

Historical figures lend their names to ideas associated with them: The words boycott, chauvinist, quisling, and sandwich all derive from personal names (but are lowercased). Such is also the case with draconian, epicurean, pyrrhic, and the like. However, political movements or philosophies, or historical eras, attached to personalities are uppercased: Reagonomics, Victorian.

Various collections of people are associated with proper names for locations. These, generally lowercased, include bohemian, lesbian, and philistine. Likewise, some names of ethnic groups have similarly become identified with (often negative) personal qualities, leading to references, variably uppercased or lowercased, to being welshed (or welched) on or getting your Irish up, for example. (The first word in “scot-free,” by contrast, does not refer to the Scottish.)

Famous people have also been associated with items or components of clothing, or material, which are lowercased: bloomer, cardigan, raglan. Likewise, slang words can be derived from real-life people, such as the verb bogart, or “Mae West,” the onetime nickname for a life vest.

3. Literary Eponyms

Fictional characters often evoke such strong qualities that we assign their names to those qualities: faustian, quixotic. We also refer to people who exhibit qualities of literary characters by directly associating them, such as when we call someone a Casanova, a Romeo, or a Svengali (retaining initial capitalization), but some other such terms, such as lothario, are lowercased.

Storytellers with a distinguishable quality have given their names (with initial capitalization intact) to literary criticism for the purposes of analogy, as in Dickensian (suggesting melodramatic poverty, eccentric characters, or jollity), Homeric (epic), and Proustian (evoking personal memories).

Books named after the protagonist (Jane Eyre) and record albums identified by the musician’s or band’s name (David Bowie, The Beach Boys) are eponymic.

4. Mythological Eponyms

Mythological characters also inspire eponyms, which generally retain initial capital letters: We refer to the Midas touch, to someone being a Hercules or a Venus, or an Achilles’ heel (traditionally, this possessive form does not include an s after the apostrophe).

But we lowercase analogous terms such as chimera and gorgon, as well as atlas, erotic, and odyssey. (And don’t forget, or confuse, Tantalus and Sisyphus: Fortunately, their eponymous adjectives, tantalizing and Sisyphean — note the difference in capitalization — are clearly distinct.)

5. Scientific Eponyms

In science, scientists and inventors are often honored for their work by having their names assigned (in lowercase form) to refer to units of scientific measurement, as in the cases of Rudolf Diesel, Alessandro Volta, and James Watt, or to processes (galvanism) or methods (algorithm).

Likewise, botanists are immortalized by having their (lowercased) names grafted onto nomenclature for plants, as with dahlia, magnolia, and poinsettia. Innovations and discoveries are also often named after their discoverers or popularizers: “Avogadro’s number,” “Alzheimer’s disease.”

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13 Responses to “5 Types of Eponyms”

  • Stephen

    Very interesting stuff, although whether an eponym is capitalised or not seems slightly arbitrary.

    For example, I believe the units named after Volta and Watt (i.e. Volts and Watts) should be capitalised, but the words voltage and wattage are not.

  • Stephen

    Oh, having actually checked my facts, I appear to be completely wrong that volts and watts should be capitalised. I assumed that they would be since the unit symbol for each is a capital. My mistake.

    But I stand by my original point that capitalisation for eponyms generally seems to be arbitrary.

  • Cecily

    There are also slightly less direct eponymous verbs, such as “gerrymander” (named after a Mr Gerry and the end of “salamander”) and “Bowdlerize”. For me, the former only looks right in lowercase, and the latter with an initial capital.

    A bit of a tangent, but I’m intrigued at your repeated use of “lowercased” and variants as verbs, rather than “lowercase” and “uppercase” as adjectives. Is that common in AmE?

    Also, “uppercase” surely means all capitals, whereas you seem to be referring to initial capitals.

  • Michelle

    Is there a unit named after Rudolf Diesel?

  • Mike Cooney

    What a joyous, but ill-considered journey you embark upon: mulling over the rights and wrongs of capitalization, when all around us the English language is besieged by the ignorant and the illiterate; who, discover a fleeting glory in their ability to find rhyming couplets to match their inane observations, pour scorn upon their peers prepared to protect their native tongue against the barbarians and their abbreviated text.

  • KC

    In my past college studies, I have been told to capitalize name brands like Tylenol, Kleenex, unless the company leaves it in lower case.

  • Peter

    Is there a unit named after Rudolf Diesel?

    Heh. I was going to comment on that, too. Mark’s obviously thinking of diesel engines/fuel. Also, “Europe” should be under point (4), and Casanova probably under point (1).

    In my past college studies, I have been told to capitalize name brands like Tylenol, Kleenex, unless the company leaves it in lower case.

    Capitalize it if it’s brand name. Mark’s point was that many of these have become generic terms, which are not capitalized: “kleenex” is used for all tissues, not just those made by Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc. (owner of the brand name “Kleenex”)

  • Kristy

    Just a potentially interesting tidbit for you. In the medical writing industry, we generally do not use the possessive form of an eponym. For example, it would be Down syndrome, not Down’s syndrome. That’s the way it’s done in the the AMA Manual of Style.

  • Philip

    So, how is it that, in AmE, Roquefort is capitalized but cheddar is not? They both are the geographic areas associated with a distinctive cheese.

  • Cesar Macher

    Well done, very informative!

  • Spiritual Films

    I am confuse sometimes also, either to use capital or not. Like the “your good office” and “Your Good Office”. This is very informative.

  • Calgary Listings

    I will call this blog not just an informative post but
    an educational one also. Thanks..

  • jessiethought

    Oh, how interesting! And intriguing comments, too. I don’t really have anything to add, but Diesel? I never knew.

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