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Names made into words

By Andy Hallman | Dec 05, 2012

A friend of mine brought to my attention a very interesting phenomenon the other day, which is the large number of words that are derived from a person’s name. A word that has a person’s name as its root is known as an eponym.

My friend told me one of the surprising eponyms he came across was the word “galvanize.” The word means “to stimulate or shock with an electric current.” It is also employed in more figurative uses such as “to arouse awareness” or “spur.”

The word comes from an Italian biologist named Luigi Galvani, who lived in the 18th century. Galvani became famous for demonstrating how an electrical current caused muscles to twitch.

Electricity was still somewhat of a mystery in Galvani’s time, and Galvani was the first to show that animal bodies used a kind of electricity to control muscles. Previously, nerves were thought to carry water which moved the muscles, but Galvani showed that nerves were better thought of as electrical conductors.

One of my favorite eponyms is “Pythagorean” as in the “Pythagorean Theorem,” named after the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras. The Pythagorean Theorem is one of the first theorems that students learn in math class, which is how to find the area of the sides in a right triangle, written as a2 + b2 = c2 where the side represented by “c” is the hypotenuse.

Another good eponym, maybe even better than Pythagorean, is Cartesian. If Pythagorean pertains to Pythagoras, then Cartesian must pertain to someone with a name like Carter, right? Not exactly. Cartesian pertains to a French philosopher named René Descartes, who lived in the early 17th century. What’s interesting about this eponym is that the “s” is pronounced in Cartesian but neither “s” is pronounced in Descartes, so the name is pronounced as “day cart.”

Descartes is among the most famous philosophers of all time, known for creating a coordinate system in mathematics whereby a point in two-dimensional space could be expressed as a set of numbers, and that even whole shapes could be expressed as an equation.

Another of Descartes’ lasting ideas, and one that bears his name, is Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism is the belief that the mind and the body are two distinct entities. Descartes believed that the mind (or soul) was not made of matter and that it merely inhabited the body temporarily, allowing for the soul to persist after the body’s death. This was in opposition to materialists who believed that all that exists is made of matter and that the soul Descartes described does not exist.



Comments (4)
Posted by: Andrew Michael Hallman | Dec 11, 2012 08:41

Hi David.

I don't think Pythagoras or René Descartes were lucky enough to have their names turned into verbs. They had to settle for adjectives.

Actually, there is a dispute about whether Pythagoras really had anything to do with his famous theorem or with any mathematical problem. There is no mention of his name in connection to the proof until five centuries after his death, according the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras#Pythagorean_theorem

Regarding the line between attribution and eponym, it depends on whether the person's name has become an integral part of the concept. For instance, a "Turing test" seems like an eponym to me because Turing is used as an adjective to describe the test, and that in this context Turing does not refer to the man but rather to a test to determine if machines can fool humans. It probably also helps that Turing test is the most common way to refer to this kind of thing.

Posted by: David Faden | Dec 11, 2012 00:29

Maybe you can try to work "hallmanize" into your next column. Looks like there's also some peiffering going on here too.

Looking at "Cartesian" and "Pythagorean", what's the boundary between attribution and eponymy? "Pythagorize" does seem to be in use though: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pythagorize .

Posted by: Glen Peiffer | Dec 07, 2012 13:11

Boulder County Business Report interviews Thomas Cech '70, Nobel Prizewinner in Chemistry


Education: Grinnell College, Bachelor of Arts; University of California, Berkeley, doctorate; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, postdoctoral research.

Place of employment: CU Boulder, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and molecular, cellular and developmental biology; CU BioFrontiers Institute, director; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, investigator.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Along with Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech, discovered that RNA in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst.

Impact of that work: This discovery, which came as a complete surprise to scientists, concerns fundamental aspects of the molecular basis of life. Many chapters in our textbooks had to be revised.

What do you think is the most important discovery ever made? Charles Darwin's natural selection.

Posted by: Glen Peiffer | Dec 07, 2012 12:30

4.5 Billion

After Senator Marco Rubio sidestepped a question on the age of the earth, geochemistry has enjoyed a spurt of recent media coverage. But did you know the chemist who who established Earth’s age — and prevented millions of lead poisoning cases in the process — was a Grinnellian?

In 1955, Clair C. Patterson ’43 studied lead ratios in meteorites to pinpoint Earth’s age at 4.5 billion years, a figure that has held for nearly six decades and disproved the previous 3 billion year estimate.

But Patterson quickly recognized that if ancient meteorites contained traces of lead, then the Industrial Age was drowning in it. By studying pre-Iron Age mummies, he determined that...

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