5 Types of Eponyms
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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