Aphrodisiac, atlas, biro, boycott, cardigan, panic, and sandwich all have one thing in common. They are eponyms – words derived from the names of real, fictional, mythical or spurious characters. Most eponymous words derive from a person’s surname.

Boycott, for instance, comes from the Irish Landlord Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott. After retiring from the British army, Boycott was hired to look after the Earl of Erne’s estates in County Mayo, Ireland. In 1880 the Irish Land League, wanting land reform, proposed a reduction in rents, stating that landlords who refused to accept such rents should be ostracised. Boycott refused and was promptly ostracised. His workers were forced to leave him, tradesmen refused to supply him, and his wife was threatened – indeed he was persecuted to such a degree that he and his wife were forced to flee to England, and in so doing they made the Land League’s boycott a success. The word quickly passed into other European languages; e.g. German: boykottieren.

Biro is a trademark name used to describe a kind of ball point pen, named after its Hungarian-born inventor László Josef Biró (1900-85). Biro patented his ballpoint pen, containing a quick-drying ink, in Hungary in 1938. The rise of Nazism meant that Biro was forced to leave Hungary, and he later settled in Argentina. Towards the end of the Second World War, Biro found an English company to back his product, but the company was soon taken over by the French firm Bic. So it is, then, that the ballpoint pen is known in France as bic and in the UK as a biro.

Other eponymous words include: bobby (English slang for policeman), Braille, Davis Cup, gringo, jacuzzi, masochism, Oscar (Academy award), Pandora’s box, sandwich, Tuesday, Yankee, and zeppelin. Do you know where they come from?

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