Naming Names

Language and how we use it.
Jan. 2 1997 3:30 AM

Naming Names

The eponym craze.

48000_48716_powell_fallows

The 1996 elections had no sooner sloughed into despond than I came across the following sentence in an election-eve wrap-up by Michael Lewis in the New Republic. "There is no denying," Lewis wrote, in the finale to an antic "Campaign Journal" series that saw him parting the crowds around various presidential entourages with the prosthetic assistance of a television Steadycam on his shoulder, "that I was excited by working alongside Ted Koppel, driven less by a Fallovian desire to inform the public than a lust to become rich and famous."

Advertisement

The word popped out: Fallovian. Could I have been witnessing the birth of an eponym--as wondrous a sight in its way as our recent glimpse of an island-in-the-making off the coast of Hawaii? An eponym, of course, is a word that has been formed from the name of a person, place, or thing (eponumos is a Greek word meaning "named on"). For some eponymous terms, the eponymy is obvious, or famous: Caesarean section; graham cracker; Molotov cocktail; boycott; leotard; Luddite; silhouette; volt. Many more eponyms, though familiar, are not so obviously eponymous. Maudlin, for instance, comes from the name of Mary Magdalene, who in painted and sculpted form is typically shown weeping. Masochism comes from the name of the demented 19th-century novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who described the relevant eponymous practices in his writings. (Recently, a group in Ukraine has been attempting to raise a monument to Masoch in his native city, Lviv.)

And Fallovian? In this case, the contextual evidence suggested that Michael Lewis' coinage fell into the class of eponym known as a "derivative"--in this case, derived from a name, that of James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, who has championed an approach to reporting that emphasizes hard analysis of serious issues and eschews the cult of journalists as highly paid pundits, celebrities, or oddsmakers. Lewis confirmed that this meaning was precisely the one intended, and said that, as far as he knew, his use of it in the New Republic marked this proper noun's maiden voyage as an adjective. Fallows himself, affably abashed, was unaware of previous appearances of the term.

48000_48717_powell_friends

Eponymous words have never needed much tending or encouragement. There are about 35,000 of them in the ordinary stock of the English language, a figure that does not include the many eponymous words in the specialized languages of science, engineering, and especially medicine. The use of eponyms in medicine is steeply on the decline, but ordinary eponyms, linguistic experts say, are enjoying a growth spurt these days. According to citations in recent newspapers and magazines, to gump through life is to make one's way by means of dumb luck. To espouse two positions at once is to pull a Clinton. To adopt the hairstyle popularized by the actress Jennifer Aniston on Friends is to get a Rachel or to get a Friends do. A sagan is a unit of quantity equivalent to "billions and billions"--the quotation an unintentionally self-parodic trademark of the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Imeldific, made possible by Imelda Marcos, refers to ostentatious grandiosity and extravagant bad taste. An Iraqi manicure is torture. Waldheimer's disease is a convenient lapse of memory.

To kevork someone is to assist him in the commission of suicide--an eponym derived proximately, of course, from the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, but made possible by the prior success of the rhyming verb tobork (from the name Robert Bork, and meaning to use every means possible to sabotage a nominee to high office). An eponymous verb derived from the name O.J. Simpson--toO.J., meaning "to slash"--shows some signs of acceptance among teen-agers (O.J. had a previous life as an eponym, denoting a big car of the kind Simpson drove in his commercials for Hertz. "Drive off in a def O.J.," went a line in a 1979 rap song by the Sugar Hill Gang.)

The verb tobobbitt, with its well-known specific connotation under the household-amputation rubric, has become so widely used as to have now acquired metaphoric senses. For instance, the verb is used to mean "to deprive of vigor" in this sentence from a letter to the editor of the conservative Washington Times: "Bravo to Tony Snow for exposing the bobbi[t]ting of the GOP leadership when confronted with Democratic tirades." (Linguistic note from abroad: The practice of bobbitting, according to an Asia correspondent of some years--my sister Cait, as it happens--is relatively frequent in Thailand. The local name for the practice is a Thai word that, when translated into English, means "feeding the ducks.")

The surge in eponyms is no doubt related, in part, to the efflorescence of metanames in general. Pseudonyms have never been more widely employed than they are today, when millions of invented, incorporeal identities are in play in all kinds of electronic communication. The married woman who takes her husband's family name as a surname yet keeps her own family name as a middle name--Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sandra Day O'Connor--has unwittingly introduced a new form of patronymic, which takes its place alongside the more traditional (Slavic, Scandinavian, Islamic, Hispanic) versions. Even anonymity, owing to controversy earlier this year over the authorship of the novel Primary Colors, has had to endure an uncharacteristically high public profile in recent months. I don't know what name future historians will bestow on our present age, but arguably the age deserves not a name but a nym.

Why more eponymy now? Some people, of course, have set out to make well-known eponymous terms of their names, as Donald Trump is doing with his new magazine Trump Style. The proliferation of commercial brand names is certainly a major factor: Consider Nintendo neck, the Twinkie defense, the Teflon presidency. For reasons that hardly need belaboring, it is easier today than ever before for any name--personal or commercial--to become widely known quickly, even if transiently. Memorable eponymous terms require memorable nominal roots and, in the English-speaking world, people's names are becoming more diverse and interesting as more cultures are demographically and linguistically annexed. Also, eponymous terms allow almost anyone to display competence, even brilliance, at coining useful and appropriate-sounding new words--thereby encouraging further attempts to do so.

Leona Helmsley. Mark Fuhrman. Alfonse D'Amato. Madonna. Roberto Alomar. Mother Teresa. Bill Gates. Oliver Stone. These and scores of other names cry out for eponyplasty. I look forward to your suggestions.

Cullen Murphy is the managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.