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Excerpt: 'Anonyponymous'

Introduction

The smiling gent you see on the front cover is John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. If he's grinning it might be because he's famous, saved from oblivion by the way he liked to snack, with a slab of salt beef stuffed between two pieces of toast. Or maybe it's because he's just won big. The earl was such a degenerate gambler that he once stayed at the wagering tables twenty-four hours straight, which is why he invented the sandwich in the first place — so he wouldn't have to get up.

The Earl of Sandwich is famous for being the man behind a word that most people never thought was named after anyone, a man both anonymous and eponymous or, to coin a term, anonyponymous.

As a word, eponymous is a bit anonymous itself. Its moment in the sun came with the release of REM's album Eponymous, a subtle dig at musicians who name records after themselves, such as Peter Gabriel, whose first four albums are all entitled Peter Gabriel. In short, an eponym is anything that's ever been named after anybody. The title of an autobiography, the name of a legal firm, Mercedes-Benz, Washington State — anything.

But eponymy doesn't necessarily involve the conscious act of naming. An eponym can also be a word that explodes into the language because of who a person is or what he or she did, often to that person's dismay. For how this happens, here's a firsthand account by Dr. Frasier Crane, as told to Sam Malone in an episode of Cheers:

Frasier, explaining being left at the altar: The story of my humiliation spread like wildfire through the university, and then to the entire Italian countryside. Everyone knew about it, everyone knew about my shame.

Sam: Naw — you must have been imagining that.

Frasier: Oh, was I? Do you know that in soccer, when a player kicks at the ball, misses, and falls down, it's now called a Frasier?

Sam:That could be a coincidence.

Frasier: If he's knocked cold, it's called a Frasier Crane.

Names often get used in this type of descriptive shorthand, like with, "That kid's a real Einstein," or, "He pulled a Bernie Madoff." But a name only crosses into true wordhood once it is no longer used as a reference. When we speak of hectoring wives and philandering husbands, it is without a picture of valiant Hector or lover-boy Philander popping into our minds, the way a bespectacled Viennese man with a pipe does when we say "Freudian slip." To be considered anonyponymous, a word must pass the Viennese pipe test.

So what are the other criteria? First, that the word be an eponym, the determining of which can present more of a challenge than you might think. Like most New Yorkers, I long believed the Outerbridge Crossing got its name from being the bridge farthest from downtown, and was shocked to learn that it instead honored Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge. Outerbridge is an example of the perfectly well-suited name, or aptronym, and whether a person is eponym or aptronym can be a chicken-or-the-egg proposition. Sometimes a famous name mirrors an existing term and reinforces it, as might have happened with Philadelphia whiskey maker E.G. Booz. There also lurks the possibility of nominative determinism, when someone's name influences what they become — perhaps what drove Learned Hand to become one of the most influential justices in U.S. history.

The other half of the equation — the anonymous part — cannot be decided absolutely, as everyone's knowledge is different. Most readers will know some of the characters in the following pages; the hope is that all the figures will be a surprise for the majority of readers. My editor thought Guy Fawkes had become too familiar due to the V for Vendetta mask, but I had never seen the movie. I since have, but not everyone has made the same mistake. Age is a big dividing line, and what is an eponym to one generation will be an anonyponym for the next. On the brink is a word like hoover, gaining traction as a verb meaning to suck something up. Its vibrant onomatopoeic quality almost assures its continued use among those ignorant of its origins, but I can never get out of my mind that it's the name of a vacuum manufacturer, so it failed the Viennese pipe test.

Not everyone who qualifies under the rules made it into the book, of course. In general, I preferred naturally occurring, Frasier Crane-type eponyms, so mythological figures and fictional characters were preferred to inventors and scientists: hence the absence of such delightful names as Henry J. Heimlich (maneuver), Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (burner), and Fernand Lamaze (class). Finally, there were those people who didn't qualify but I included anyway, such as the Marquis de Sade (because how could I leave out the Marquis de Sade?).

One person I didn't feel comfortable bending the rules for was our friend the Earl of Sandwich, who has become famous for his very obscurity. I do, however, want to propose the earl as patron saint of the anonyponymous. His example shows that there is hope for the forgotten figures populating the following pages, that perhaps their lives can also be pulled out of the shadows of history for the wider world to recognize. It's fair to ask, however, why should they be?

All words are abstractions. But words also have histories, and by unwinding them, we gain access to the hidden richness of our language. The absolute origins of words are for the most part unknowable; what makes eponyms extraordinary is that we can point to the moment of their birth and to the lives of the people from whom they sprang. But why anonyponyms? Blame Etienne de Silhouette. When I looked up the etymology of the word silhouette and saw his name, I thought a virus had somehow infected my copy of the OED. It seemed like a prank, and indeed, Monsieur Silhouette and many of the other folks herein would see their peculiar fame as exactly that. In the anonyponymous, biographical history and the dictionary intersect in the realm of the ridiculous — and also of the remarkable, the delightful, and the fascinating.

I hope you enjoy these words and the people behind them as much as I have.

From Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano. Copyright 2009 by John Bemelmans Marciano. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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