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.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer 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.

Define Your Terms!
If you play your cards right, you too could be an eponym.
Political Animals
Nancy Friedman surveys some beastly political terms, including the eponym "maverick."
Words About Words
High schooler Katie Raynolds collects words that describe other words -- like "eponym"!