Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Eponyms in the Making?

Every now and then, a prominent person achieves so much notoriety that his or her name enters the language as an eponym. Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry gave us gerrymander, after carving a salamander-shaped electoral district that favored his party in 1812. Major Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian officer who collaborated with the Germans during World War II, so quisling came to mean "a traitor to one's country." And when Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was quashed in 1987, it was said that he got Borked by his opponents. Now there are a couple of names in the news that just might lend themselves to new eponyms.

First up is Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Last week, David Letterman joked that he had been charged with "one count of bribery, one count of fraud and one count of Blagojeviching." That led the Chicago Tribune to ponder whether Blagojeviching could "really become part of the lexicon." I'm quoted in the Tribune as answering in the negative, on the grounds that the name is just too hard to say (especially if you try to add a verb ending like -ed or -ing). Now, if you shorten it to Blag or Blago, then there are some possibilities for good eponyms. We could say Blagojevich got Blagged when he was caught in the act of trying to sell the Illinois Senate seat, or that a similarly corrupt politician is Blaggish. Some have even found a name for the surreal world inhabited by the governor: the Blago-sphere.

Next up: fund manager Bernard Madoff, who has been accused of fraud involving investments in the neighborhood of $50 billion. Reuters reports that Madoff's name is already being used for puns, as in "He Made-off with my money." But could Madoff come to describe the fraud that he allegedly committed? It's unlikely, because there's already an eponym for that: a Ponzi scheme, defined as "an investment swindle in which high profits are promised from fictitious sources and early investors are paid off with funds raised from later ones." We owe that term to Charles Ponzi, an Italian-born speculator who organized a notorious scheme in 1919 and 1920. As Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski told Reuters, it's doubtful Madoff will ever make it far in the eponym races, "because we've already got a strong word, Ponzi."

Do you think either Blagojevich or Madoff will be remembered eponymously, or are there other contemporary newsmakers who stand a better chance of getting in the dictionaries? If you'd like to peruse more eponyms, check out the wordlist I created here. And the Language Lounge has some advice for turning your own name into an eponym here.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 16th 2008, 5:38 AM
Comment by: Adrienne D. (Beachwood, OH)
How about Palinized? Defined as the act of having gone from anonymity to notoreity due to circumstances wholly extrinsic to individual merit.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
Unfortunately, this habit provides completely unworthy persons with the fame (or notoriety)they wish for but certainly don't deserve. I would rather their names were forgotten forever.
That said, Palenized truly takes my fancy. It could describe Andy Worhol's "15 minutes of fame" combined with the belief that the fame is warranted.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Deborah R. (Memphis, TN)
I don't know a synonym like Madoff_ a suavy, friendly, well known and trusted person that commits unconciousable fraud. Oh that's a synonym for politician isn't it? My bad! Ha. Ha.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Shirley R.
Using the Russian word "czar" to define a role/appointment in our government is absurd and lazy. The historical baggage to "czar" is horrendous. Words that convey the straightforward description would be leader, administrator, department head, or your own synonyms. Remove (especially NPR) this word from our reportage.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Shirley: Look for my Word Routes commentary on "czar" next week!
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Joel N. (Falls Church, VA)
Does it seem like infamy is more likely to beget such eponyms than positive celebrity status? Would Mother Theresa ever be Zimmered this way?
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Graeme R.
Before reading Adrienne D's comment I thought of Palined or palined as a good candidate. Leaving out ize makes the pronunciation more economical (two syllables instead of three) and so more likely to be adopted.

To palin someone would be to lift that person into celebrity for reasons other than ability. It seems to me quite a number of people, in politics and pop music for example, have been palined.
Wednesday December 17th 2008, 7:56 AM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Joel asks whether positive actions ever beget eponyms. Yes - Braille, Sandwich, Diesel and Newton, are a few who have been immortalized by having their names attached to inventions or discoveries. Both Jefferson and Churchill's names are often used adjectivally to refer to ways of thinking or behaving in public life. As eponyms, these examples have all taken hold because there has been such a strong link between the person, and the discovery, invention or characteristic.

On the other hand, in the examples cited by Ben (gerrymander and quisling) there seems to be something more - something in the word itself that hints at the behavior being named. 'Gerrymander' seems almost too obvious, with its homonym connection to "jerry" (constructing something unsubstantially and of bad materials), and its use of "man", suggesting a link to 'manipulate' or 'manufacture'. Quisling may be less obvious, but isn't there just something about the man's name itself that sounds like a sly quitter? Even Bork, with its one hard short syllable, hints at the cursory dismissal accorded to the would be judge.

Each of Blagojevich, Madoff and Palin just doesn't seem to contain the elusive element, whatever it may be, that would hint at their respective behaviors with sufficient adhesion to make the name stick to that behavior in our minds.
Wednesday December 17th 2008, 8:22 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Phil K.: Interesting points. One small quibble: jerry(-build/built) is only attested about half a century after gerrymander was first used. But perhaps this later expression helped solidify the lasting power of the gerrymander coinage.
Wednesday December 17th 2008, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Thanks, Ben. I don't know quite how I missed that. Apologies for the misdirection, but it was 4 AM my time when I wrote, so I'm giving myself a bit of a let.

Still, it seems that eponyms take root in the language only when there is a strong association of some kind.

There must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of turncoats during the Second World War, not to mention all those earlier wars in our history. Yet Quisling somehow stands out as the eponymous traitor. Why him, and none of the others?

Bork was not the first man to be curtly dismissed in a job interview, but somehow the action stuck to his name, in a way that it hadn't adhered to any one before him.

Your fascinating list of 480 something eponyms might make a good starting place for discovery of the elusive quality that makes them work. Thanks for that, too.
Thursday December 18th 2008, 6:05 AM
Comment by: Adrienne D. (Beachwood, OH)
I understand Graeme's preference for the shorter punchier word "palined," but my preference for using the "ized" form remains strong. I think it in part is because "ized" is a form that connotes mechanical processing -- the taking of something found in a natural state and changing it through the infliction of mechanized effort, e.g., pasturized, sterilized... or the infliction of societal effort/power, as in normalized, civilized, regularized. I see what happened to Sarah Palin as being the apex of cynical candidate invention -- taking a pleasant bee-hived small town ideologue and turning her into a, well, unpleasant, bee-hived, multinational ideologue. So to Palinize is to "handle" -- and since this form connotes the introduction of external force, I still prefer it to "palined."
Thursday December 18th 2008, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great piece, Ben! I nominate you for eponym czar.
Monday December 22nd 2008, 12:24 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
I think Adrienne is on to something. New York congressman Gary Ackerman just used "Sarah Palin-ized" in reference to Caroline Kennedy:
“They’ve basically Sarah Palin-ized her, if I could coin a phrase,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), referring to the Alaska governor and former GOP vice presidential candidate criticized for being sheltered from the media. “They’re answering questions that you have to submit in writing. She’s not talking to reporters as she makes this grand tour. They’re, kind of, building a mystique and an industry around her, when we need somebody to fight.” (The Hill)
Wednesday December 24th 2008, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Adrienne D. (Beachwood, OH)
Maybe we should copyright it, as in "threepeat."
Friday January 2nd 2009, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Scott T.
Blago has little chance in my mind because the pronunciation is too similar to that of the word "blog". Beyond "Pozi Scheme", some eponym will have to emerge from this financial crisis. Give it a few months and we'll see about the Big 3 car makers and whether they scam the American public. Here are three names to keep on your eponym radar:

Alan Mulally of Ford
Robert Nardelli of Chrysler
Richard Wagoner of GM

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