6 common words you had no idea were named after people

“Eponymous” comes from the Ancient Greek “epṓnumos,” made of “epí” (upon) and “ónuma” (name). Quite simply, it means that something is named after a person.

Many terms like this are quite obvious, like Victorian, Fahrenheit, and Freudian slip. But here’s a list of words you’d never guess have their origins in just one person.


DEFINITION: a weak or ineffectual person.

ORIGIN: In 1725, Henry Carey wrote a satirical poem entitled “Namby Pamby,” a cruel derivation of the name of another poet, Ambrose Philips.

Philips had recently published a series of odes in a choppy new rhythm that alarmed more conservative poets of his day. Yes, this is what passed for controversy in 17th century England. Carey lampooned him with this parodic poem:

Namby-Pamby, pilly-piss,
Rhimy-pim’d on Missy Miss
Tartaretta Tartaree
From the navel to the knee;
That her father’s gracy grace
Might give him a placy place.

Carey’s parody was so popular that “namby-pamby” entered the vernacular as any person lacking guts.

Smart alec

DEFINTION: Someone who thinks they know everything.

ORIGIN: Alec Hoag was a pimp and a thief back in the 1840s in New York City. His team of nogoodnikery was composed of his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack.” Melinda would, er, distract the “customers,” while Alec and French Jack robbed them blind.

It was a smart ploy. To ensure there was even less chance of being nabbed, Alec paid off several members of the police force with a portion of the stolen goods.

Unfortunately, one day he didn’t quite pay up enough, and the stiffed cops arrested Alec. He promptly escaped from prison, but was soon recaptured.

The police nicknamed him “Smart Alec” – since he was just a little too smart for his own good. They then started using the term to deal with other criminals giving the cops a hard time, telling them “Don’t be a Smart Alec.”


DEFINITION: fanatical patriotism degenerated into a vice

ORIGIN: Nicolas Chauvin may or may not have been a real person – but his story goes like this.

Chauvin was a soldier of Napoleon’s Grand Armee. He was badly wounded and poorly compensated, yet remained steadfastly loyal, even after Napoleon himself abdicated.

The use of the term today has become shorthand for “male chauvinism,” but it originally referred to unhealthy fanaticism in general – be it political, cultural, or otherwise.

Dunce cap

DEFINITION: a cone-shaped paper hat placed on the head of slow or lazy students

ORIGIN: Poor John Duns Scotus. He was a Scottish theologian and philosopher whose theories on grammar, logic, and metaphysics were widely influential throughout Europe. So why do we equate his name with total idiots?

Well, after the Renaissance and then the Protestant Reformation, new schools of thought rejected many of Duns’ ideas. Those who clung to outmoded doctrine were mocked as “Dunsmen” or simply “Dunces.” This evolved over time to be synonymous with plain ol’ dummy.

Somewhere along the line, conical hats used to be used in classrooms as a shameful method of punishment for misbehaving children. At present, they are out of fashion.


DEFINITION: a process or set of rules to be followed, especially by a computer

ORIGIN: Gotta go way back to 825AD for this one. Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. He wrote about mathematics in Arabic, including concepts like decimal places and algebra. Yes, you can thank him for having to solve for X.

In the 12th century, his important work was translated into Latin under the title “Algoritmi de numero Indorum,” where “Algoritmi” was the translator’s Latinization of Al-Khwārizmī’s name. Over time, it morphed into the modern word “algorithm.”

If your name evolved into a common English word, what would it mean? Let me know in the comments below.

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