9 Historical Figures Whose Names Became Commonly Used Words

iStock (background) / Wikimedia Commons (Louis Pasteur)
iStock (background) / Wikimedia Commons (Louis Pasteur) / iStock (background) / Wikimedia Commons (Louis Pasteur)

It’s a “Freudian slip.” And “Euclidean geometry.” The capitalization on such adjectives leaves little doubt that each was derived from a proper noun and not some lowly Latin root word. And when MacGyver—as in “he MacGyvered a makeshift jack with a log”—began showing up in dictionaries in 2015, it did so in uppercase. There are, however, those who have left us English speakers a more understated linguistic legacy, whose names live on as lowercase verbs and adjectives. Here’s a short list.    


In 1807, Henrietta Bowdler (1754-1830) anonymously published The Family Shakespeare, an edition of 20 of Shakespeare’s works purged of profanity and anything Bowdler deemed unsuitable for women or children. Eleven years later, her twin brother Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) published the much more successful and influential The Family Shakspeare (dropping the e, for some reason) where he gave the same treatment to the rest of the First Folio. Ophelia dies by accidental drowning, for instance, not suicide, and all oaths of “God!” are exchanged for exclamations of “Heavens!” To bowdlerizeis thus to “remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective.” 

But although the blame for the edits usually falls on Thomas, he actually undid some of Henrietta’s edits. According to the University of North Carolina, “Thomas Bowdler [modified] and in some cases reinstated many of Henrietta’s cuts. Perhaps feeling that his sister went too far in her moral zealotry, Thomas Bowdler reinstated the drunken Porter’s speech [from Macbeth] in his 1818 edition, but in a dramatically truncated form that rendered it almost unintelligible.”


To gerrymander is to “manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class.” The word derives from a questionable redistricting signed into law in 1812 by Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), then governor of Massachusetts. When the state’s Democratic-Republican-controlled legislature rigged district boundaries to increase their party's control over state and national offices, one of the state senate districts in Essex County ended up resembling a salamander. A political cartoon in a local Federalist newspaper dubbed it a “Gerry-mander,” and the rest, as they say, is history. 


Mesmerize, to “hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else or so as to transfix them,” comes to us from mesmerism, which derives from the surname of German physician Friedrich (sometimes Franz) Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). Mesmer popularized a therapy in which a trained practitioner induced a hypnotic state in a patient by the exercise of a force Mesmer called “animal magnetism.” Mesmer’s process involved pressing patients’ thumbs, staring fixedly into their eyes, and, on occasion, applying pressure for hours to the hypochondrium region located below the diaphragm. 


Familiar from many a milk carton, to pasteurize is to “subject milk, wine, or other products to a process of partial sterilization, especially one involving heat treatment or irradiation, thus making the product safe for consumption and improving its resistance to spoilage.” French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) pioneered the process when he discovered in the 1860s not only that it was microorganisms that caused beverages to spoil but that heat could kill the offending lifeforms.


It has been said (by fellow mathematician Charles Hermite) of Niels Henrik Abel (1802–1829) that he “left mathematicians enough to keep them busy for 500 years.” To the English language, the short-lived Norwegian left the adjective abelian, applied to a mathematical object called a group when it has members related by a commutative operation (e.g., a×b = b×a).


Rather than the pursuit of wealth or power, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) advocated the enjoyment of such small pleasures as food and the company of friends. The definition of epicurean—“devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially that derived from fine food and drink”—likely makes the man out to be more of a hedonist than he actually was.


Remembered for his discovery of what is now called Ohm’s law (the voltage applied across a conductor is directly proportional to the electric current that results), German physicist Georg Ohm (1789–1854) also gave his name to the SI unit of electrical resistance, the ohm. And the name given to a material that obeys Ohm’s law? Ohmic—only uppercase in sentence-initial position.


Would Plato (c. 425–348 BCE) be peeved that his teacher Socrates retains capitalization in such derivative phrases as “Socratic method,” while typing “platonic relationships” does not require a working shift key? Who knows. Meaning “intimate and affectionate but not sexual,” platonic derives from Plato’s discussion of love in the Symposium


In 1768, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) told a widow who begged him for alms that she could make money working for him, she assumed as a housekeeper. What followed—forcible disrobing, the tying of limbs, the repeated pouring of hot wax into fresh wounds, a harrowing escape—caused the first of many scandals that made de Sade notorious for his libertine sexuality. From de Sade we get sadism, sadist, and sadistic, “deriving pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.”