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Eponymosity!

A quickie blog post today, inspired by Benjamin Dreyer’s entertaining rant on the distinction between eponymous and titular (it’s in footnote 1 for a clearer explanation than I am inclined/able to provide), and also by the fact that one of these sneaky little bastards nearly got me in a recent book.

So. An eponym is simply a word taken from a person’s name. Obamacare is an eponym, so is Reaganomics. If you hoover your carpets, the verb comes from the eponymous brand of vacuum cleaner. (We do not use the capital letter, no matter what the Hoover corporation may think: that ship has sailed, as demonstrated by the fact that I hoover with a Dyson.)

If you write historical novels, eponyms are one of those damn things. They tend to be extremely and usefully specific in meaning, but they are also extremely specific in dates, meaning you can’t rely on the old “well it was probably around for decades before it made it into the dictionary” line.

Here for your advisory is an incomplete list of eponyms that may trip you up, depending on period.

Boycott

The name comes from 1880 (Ireland, Charles Boycott, a shitty land agent who was socially and economically ostracised). The practice is older: there was a widespread boycott in the UK of slavery-produced sugar starting in 1791, during which sales plummeted by something like 40%. It is totally historically plausible to have a consumer or personal boycott in your Georgian or Regency novel, but you can’t call it a boycott for several decades more

Chauvinist

Named for a French vaudeville character. Meaning ‘blinkered nationalist’ it dates from 1840; you can’t use it for a male pig until 1960.

Fedora                                                                                                         

The hat beloved of men who spend too long on the internet getting angry about Star Wars sequels actually used to be a symbol of female liberation and cross dressing. Comes from the 1887 play Fédora starring Sarah Bernhardt.

Fuchsia

You will be able to spell this if you remember it’s an eponym for Mr Fuchs. The flowers are so named in the UK in the 1750s, the colour not till the 1920s. Do not put your Regency heroine in fuchsia, is what I mean.

Maverick

Supposedly from a US cattle owner, Samuel Maverick, who let his calves run wild. 1880s US at the very earliest, more probably 1930s. Yes, that is irritating.

Mesmeric

He may have compelling eyes but they ain’t mesmeric before the 1860s. The hypnotist Mesmer flourished in the late 1700s, giving us mesmerism (hypnosis); mesmerise wasn’t a verb till the end of the Regency, and even then it still meant ‘to put into a hypnotic trance’.

Sadistic

Marquis de Sade, as you already know, but NB that sadist/sadistic aren’t in general use till the 1890s or so when sexology got going, along with masochism (also an eponym).

Sandwich

1762 since you ask.

Silhouette

The outline picture is named for French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. Used in France from 1760. However, despite there being a craze for silhouettes in England, the actual word didn’t come here till the mid 1820s, which is sodding annoying if your novel about a silhouette cutter happens to be set in 1819 I’M JUST SAYING.

Sweet Fanny Adams

This UK usage originally referring to something no good, now often used as an alternative to ‘sweet FA/fuck all’, came in from 1869 and cannot be used before 1867. You really don’t want to know where it comes from but here if you must (be warned, it’s genuinely grim).

Thug

Originally from India. Used to describe the Thuggee (as Brits then called it) sect from 1810. Didn’t become generalised to all violent lowlifes till 1839. You can’t be assaulted by thugs in a Regency unless they are actually Thugs.

Trilby

Another hat your Regency gentleman can’t wear. Comes from George du Maurier’s mega hit Trilby published 1894, which also gave us svengali (the name of the baddie in the book).


Feel free to add to this in the comments, there’s always something!

Death in the Spires, my Oxford-set historical murder mystery, is out now. The silhouette book, The Duke at Hazard, publishes in July: more later!

16 replies
  1. Heather Rose Jones
    Heather Rose Jones says:

    “Maverick” rather stabbed me in the eye when I was reading a book blurb for a historical set in the mid 18th century in which the antagonist had adopted the sobriquet “The Maverick.” Doesn’t even take knowing the specifics to associate it with a specific era in the American West.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I actually wasn’t aware of the origins (the American West just isn’t something I’m very familiar with) and might conceivably have guessed Irish. Why eponyms are a menace.

      Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s such an evil one because the ‘ing’ makes you think it’s an old word like ‘halfling’ or something.

      Reply
  2. Sye Kesby
    Sye Kesby says:

    Is there a similar term for words deriving from place names, etc.? I’m thinking of the colours named after battles, Magenta and Solferino.

    Reply
  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Hi! I’m coming here as I’m reading The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting and thought this might be the simplest way to send my praise lol. Just wanted to say that I’m obsessed with your writing. This is my third book of yours and I simply cannot wait to read/listen through all of them!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It entirely depends on the editor and the book! eg I would imagine a 60yo European editor is a lot more likely to spot “quisling” than a 25yo American. An American editor working on a British author’s Regency romance might be very likely to nod through “sweet fanny adams” along with all the other cant. And as you see upstream, I would not have tagged ‘maverick’ as American West in my head at all.

      aka, as with so many issues, the author is not advised to depend entirely on an editor. If you write historicals, you need to develop your spidey senses for these things and be in the habit of looking them up.

      Reply

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