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Strange Namesakes of Some Everyday Words

July 29, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

We interrupt this summer vacation for an English lesson. Nothing too taxing, mind you. Just a brief exploration of word origins to entertain your brain and help keep it functioning until school starts again.

Most of us give little thought to where the thousands of words we use in a day come from. Sometimes, though, the origin or development of a word--its etymology--is a tale in itself.

Consider, for example, some English words derived from the names of real people.

Nicotine we can attribute to Frenchman Jean Nicot. He was brought some tobacco seeds from newly explored America and planted them in France in the 1500s--thus introducing the tobacco plant ( Nicotiana tabacum ) to France.

Another Frenchman, Gen. Nicolas Chauvin, was strongly devoted to Napoleon, even after the emperor was defeated and exiled. Today, chauvinism indicates an excessive and sometimes irrational devotion to a cause or belief.

Boysenberries are the result of careful breeding by American botanist Rudolph Boysen.

We sometimes call harsh laws Draconian; the word comes from Draco, an Athenian statesman famous for severe laws.

The power to mesmerize , to captivate or hypnotize, was explored widely by a Viennese physician named F. A. Mesmer, who conducted numerous psychic experiments in the late 18th Century.

Shrapnel, fragments dispersed from high-explosive shells, is named for British Lt. Henry Shrapnel. In 1784, he experimented with the design of hollow projectiles by filling them with small balls and a charge of powder to burst the shell.

Bill Clinton and other jazz enthusiasts owe some thanks to a Belgian musician and inventor named A. J. Sax.

Boycott, the act of avoiding businesses that promote policies or beliefs you oppose, is named for an Irish landlord who was ostracized by his neighbors for charging exorbitant rents.

Plan to use a doily under the beer nut bowl at your next party? Then think of the London cloth dealer named Doily (or Doyley) who created them 200 years ago.

Probably no one will be surprised that the guillotine is named for Dr. J. I. Guillotin, who advocated the beheading of traitors during the French Revolution.

On a less gruesome note, those bright holiday poinsettias come to us by way of an American statesman and amateur botanist named Poinsett.

The next time you trim your sideburns, think of Ambrose Burnside, a Union general in the Civil War, known for his luxuriant whiskers. His name got reversed somewhere along the line.

Spoonerisms happen when the initial sounds of words are reversed. Oxford professor William Spooner was famous for such slip-ups. A couple recorded by his students: "Our queer old dean" (for "Our dear old queen") and "kinkering congs" (for "conquering kings").

Another language foible, made particularly famous by Bob Uecker ("Mr. Baseball" of the beer ads), comes from a literary character. A malapropism is a blundering use of a word that sounds like the one intended. It comes from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in "The Rivals," an 18th-Century play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Some of the character's bloopers: "contagious countries" (for "contiguous countries") and "the very pineapple of politeness" (for "the very pinnacle of politeness").

Now consider some words named for real places.

Badminton is named for the English duke's estate where the game was first played.

Podunk is the butt of many jokes about small towns and is an actual town in Massachusetts.

Marathon was the name of the ancient Greek village or nearby plain from which a man set forth on a long run to Athens to announce the Persians' defeat in battle. Once he got to Athens, legend has it, he collapsed and died--but a new word was born.

The bikini? Named for the Pacific island where atomic bombs were detonated experimentally in the mid-1940s.

Now a few words from European towns:

Limousin, a region in France; Bologna, a northern Italian city; and Spa, a Belgian town admired for its mineral springs and natural baths.

Many everyday words (indeed, the names of the days themselves) are rooted in Greek and Roman mythology.

Titanic comes from the Greek Titans, 12 giant deities who were overthrown by the Olympian gods.

Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, wrought our word cereal.

Erotic, erogenous and similar words come from Eros, the Greek god of love.

Finally, Nemesis was the Greek goddess of punishment who, the myth said, meets all evildoers.

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