15 Words You Didn't Realize Were Named After People


Vocabulary.com, posted by Arika Okrent

When something is named after a person or a place or a company, we call that name an eponym. Eponyms are everywhere—in science, medicine, the arts. This list from our friends at Vocabulary.com focuses on words that are historically eponyms but are so common that their history has been obscured. Here, the hidden history of eponyms is revealed.


a single-reed woodwind with a conical bore

It's pretty clear that the sousaphone was named after John Phillip Sousa, but the saxophone is named after its inventor, a Belgian musical instrument designer named Adolphe Sax.


an alkaloid poison that occurs in tobacco; used in medicine and as an insecticide

Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, brought tobacco plants to France from a trip to Portugal in 1559. Originally touted for its supposed medicinal properties, the plant and later the molecule were named for Nicot.


underpants worn by women

Amelia Bloomer did not invent bloomers, but she was so strongly associated with the Women's Rights movement that the revolutionary undergarment bears her name. Bloomer published a newspaper concerned with women's issues and was even a strong presence at the famed Seneca Falls Convention with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.


a large burial chamber, usually above ground

This word is named after Mausolus, a ruler of part of the Greek Empire in the 4th century B.C.E. His burial chamber, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


fanatical patriotism

It is doubtful that Nicolas Chauvin really existed, but the term that bears his name lives on. Chauvin, it is said, was a badly wounded, poorly compensated soldier who was nonetheless still loyal to Napoleon, even after the leader himself abdicated. Chauvinism has come to be used as shorthand for "male chauvinism" but in its original use it meant fanatical patriotism, and by extension, fanatical devotion to any cause even in the face of overwhelming opposition.


an alphabet derived from the Greek alphabet and used for writing Slavic languages (Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and some other Slavic languages)

Saint Cyril was a 9th-century missionary who helped devise a writing system to translate the Bible into the languages of the Slavic peoples.


putting a person to death by mob action without due process of law

The status of this eponym is a little unclear. The most probable candidate is William Lynch, who led a group dispensing vigilante justice in 1780s. The other candidate is Charles Lynch, who fined and imprisoned British Loyalists at about the same time. Either way, lynching at this time referred to a wide variety of punishments, not exclusively the act of hanging it became identified with.


a cone-shaped paper hat formerly placed on the head of slow or lazy pupils

John Duns Scotus was actually a well-respected philosopher in the 13th century, and it was not until the 1500s, in a reaction against Scotus' ideas, that a "dunce," a follower of Duns, became a subject of ridicule, leading to the cap that labels one as "incapable of scholarship."


any of various tropical shrubs widely cultivated for their showy drooping purplish or reddish or white flowers

The flowering plant was named by its discoverer, Charles Plumier, in the late 1600s, in honor of a botanist from the previous century, Leonhart Fuchs.

10. UZI

a type of submachine gun that is designed and manufactured in Israel

This powerful gun was designed by Major Uziel Gal in the 1940s.


any of various shrubs and small trees having large fragrant white or yellow flowers

Another flower discovered by someone and named in tribute to someone else, this plant was discovered by Carl Linnaeus (whose classification of the natural world was an influence on Darwin) and named for Dr. Alexander Garden.


a point system of writing in which patterns of raised dots represent letters and numerals

Frenchman Louis Braille went blind as a child and developed his system of writing for the blind in 1824.


an internal-combustion engine that burns heavy oil

The development of the Diesel engine, an important engineering feat, was the work of Rudolf Diesel in the late 19th century.


a paved surface having compressed layers of broken rocks held together with tar

John Loudon McAdam invented this method of paving roads in the 1820s. Originally involving small stones and a binding agent, the technology has changed over the years, but the basic principle has remained the same.


any of several South American ornamental woody vines having brilliant red or purple flower bracts; widely grown in warm regions

The plant was discovered by Louis Anton de Bougainville, an 18th century French explorer, and is named after him.

To see more words that started off as eponyms, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.