RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now were going to learn about some of historys most famous names, though youve probably never heard of the people who actually bore those names. Author John Bemelmans Marciano is just out with the book Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words.
Eponymous means anything named after a person, like Ford Motor Company or Washington, D.C. To qualify for this book, words also had to be anonymous not generally associated with real people; think Rudolph Diesel, Ken Deetto(ph) Jacuzzi, or maybe most famously the Earl of Sandwich. John Bemelmans Marciano calls him the patron saint of anonyponymous.
Mr. JOHN BEMELMANS MARCIANO (Author, Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words): He was a government minister in England and there was an old story that was written by a French traveler that said that he was such inveterate gambler that he invented the sandwich on a particular gambling binge so he would never have to get up from the gaming tables for 24 hours straight.
MONTAGNE: Thats just one problem with that story. The Earls family insists their ancestor inventor the sandwich because he was such a tireless worker, he didnt want to get up from his desk. True or apocryphal, the stories in Anonyponymous led author Marciano to many linguistic discoveries.
Mr. MARCIANO: The word that actually started me on this path was - the word silhouette to me struck me as a very funny word. And I went into the Oxford English Dictionary, I looked up its etymology, and when it said that it came from Etienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister in the 18th century, I really couldnt believe it. I thought it had to be like a joke or mistake or something. The story goes that the French had a horrendous budget deficit and he raised taxes and he turned people into basically shadows of themselves.
But somehow that story then evolved that he actually practiced the art of shade cutting, which is where the word was first adopted. So within history, these things get very mixed up.
MONTAGNE: Well, it does seem that a fair number of these come from inventors, Fahrenheit and Celsius and voltage - and among those, what would be your favorite?
Mr. MARCIANO: I love the story of Jules Leotard. He actually was going to be a law student and his father ran a gymnasium in the south of France. And he had the idea of taking the bars that gymnasts use and basically suspending them from a ceiling and then traveling from one to the other while they were moving and doing summersaults between them.
Mr. MARCIANO: Yeah, swings. And there was a promoter in Paris who caught wind of it and came down to the south of France, saw him doing it, and then booked him into the largest venue in Paris, and he became an absolute sensation. And one of his other inventions was he knew that he had a pretty good physique, so he wanted to show that off. So he invented the one-piece athletic outfit and that became the leotard. And it became this sensation around Paris and was used in dance studios especially.
MONTANGE: Another area is mythology.
Mr. MARCIANO: Yeah.
MONTANGE: And one of the characters out of mythology gave us the word tantalize.
Mr. MARCIANO: Tantalize, yes. Tantalus was punished by the gods and they came up with a very unique punishment for him, which was for all of eternity he had to stand in a river with fruit branches above him. And every time he tried to reach up to take a bite of fruit, wind lifted the branch out of his hands. And whenever he tried to bend down to take a drink of water, the level of water went too low for him to drink.
MONTAGNE: So forever doomed to be tantalized.
Mr. MARCIANO: Yes.
Mr. MARCIANO: Galvani(ph) Luigi Galvani he was a scientist and he was one of those guys who was, you know, it was a spectacular accident. He had two passions. One of them was electricity and the other was animal biology. This was a couple hundred years ago in Italy. And he had a laboratory and he had this electricity machine and it created sparks and he had been dissecting a frog on the same table. And by mistake, one of his assistants touched the electricity machine to the frogs legs and the frogs legs sprang to life. And he suddenly realized there must be electricity in animals. And it was you know, it was like that you stuck your chocolate in my peanut butter moment. And eventually led Volta, who was his friend and contemporary, to invent the first battery.
MONTAGNE: One that I think might surprise people is the Frisbee.
Mr. MARCIANO: That was a really surprising one for me. There was a woman named Mary Frisbie who made pies in Connecticut, and Yale students, other colleges have claimed it, but most people think it was actually Yale students, would throw around her pie plates after they had finished their pies. And it said on them Frisbie. And kind of like you would say incoming, they would say Frisbie, so you know, just to get people the heads up to know that there was something spinning and flying that was coming at their head.
Now, what was interesting about this, there was a corporation called the Wham-O Corporation that of course made the Hula Hoop and they had a spinning disk that was called the Pluto Platter. And they
MONTAGNE: I see where thats going.
Mr. MARCIANO: Yes, and it wasnt doing that well, and they couldnt quite figure out why it wasnt doing well. And they went around to college campuses knowing that this was where trends started, and to their surprise in the Northeast people were already throwing flying disks and they had this name Frisbie for it. So they said, well, thats a much better name than the Pluto Platter. So Mary Frisbies name was actually spelt F-R-I-S-B-I-E. They changed it to be E-E so they could trademark it, and thats how Frisbee became Frisbee.
MONTAGNE: Now, you write that there are a lot of phony eponyms on the Internet.
Mr. MARCIANO: Yeah, those are my favorites.
MONTANGE: Domenico de Comma.
Mr. MARCIANO: Domenico de Comma. Originally the Bible was unpunctuated and supposedly Domenico de Comma, to make it more easily readable, inserted commas into the Bible, and he was killed by the Inquisition for they said that the punctuation was an affront to God. Sadly, though, its not true. The comma actually comes from Greek, meaning to cut off.
MONTAGNE: But why do think theyre so wonderful? Partly because theyre no more ludicrous than most of the real ones?
Mr. MARCIANO: No, I mean thats I mean thats the amazing thing. I mean like why is Leopold von Asphalt, you know, which is completely fake, any more strange than Rudolf Diesel?
MONTAGNE: Could have been, could have been.
Mr. MARCIANO: Could have been, could have been.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Its been a pleasure talking with you.
Mr. MARCIANO: This has been great.
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MONTANGE: John Bemelmans Marciano is the author of Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words. And you can read why a Philadelphia whiskey maker E.G. Booze did not make it into the book at our Web site, npr.org.
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