What’s in a Name? – Plenty

What’s in a Name? – Plenty

Some people become famous for great achievements while others find a place in our collective memory by identification with processes inelegant.

Heretofore in this space we have related eponyms whereby the information “Sandwich” became entwined with an English earl of that fife who invented the meat and bread snack to sustain him in marathon card games.

The name of Derrick, inventor of a portable gallows, has come to be applied to any lifting device.

Maverick, an eccentric Texas cattleman, had so many cows he didn’t bother with the general practice of branding,

This being the political season, consider the eponymic fate of Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812.

Gerry had been a Revolutionary War soldier who went on to important political achievements. Politics were as rough-and-tumble back then as today.

The U.S. Constitution stipulates that political representatives shall be elected from delineated districts of equal population. These enclaves are determined by the census every ten years.

Unhappily our basic, governing document does not specify the shape of such districts. It was quickly discovered that political advantage could be attained by concentrating one’s friends or diluting one’s foes.

John Fiske, in his 1890 “Civil Government in the United States,” says the practice began in 1788 by enemies of the Federal constitution in Virginia. The aim was to prevent the election of James Madison to the first Congress. Fortunately for history, the effort failed.

However, the possible of border placement was recognized as a political tool. Today, the two, major parties use a lot of time and money devising congressional districts. It’s a science based upon extensive polling.

When Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, the Democratic state legislature redistributed the districts “in order to obtain an increased representation of the Democratic party in the state senate.”

A string of contiguous Essex County towns on the north and west boundaries were populated with a slight majority of Democrats. These were strung together oddly in a manner to produce 29 state senators with fewer Democratic votes than the 11 senators in towns with a majority of Whigs.

The Whig editor of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper foresaw the outcome and kept a map of the districts on the wall of his office to keep his disgust fresh.

Gilbert Stuart, a Whig and great painter of George Washington, stopped one day at the Spy and noticed the new districts map.

The configuration caught his eye. Stuart grabbed a pencil, outlined the new Democratic districts and additional a few fierce, dragon features. He explained: “That will do for a salamander!”

“Gerrymander !” shouted the editor. He published the retouched map on his front page, and it was widely circulated throughout the other states as an example of Democrat perfidy.

Gerrymander, nevertheless today, is the generic term for district manipulation by both parties for political advantage.

Oddly, Gov. Gerry had opposed the districting.

The Marvelous Crapper

Another famous, eponymic myth involves Thomas Crapper – a talented plumber for English royalty from 1861 to 1904.

According to Dr. Andy Gibbons, historian of the International Thomas Crapper Society, the upscale plumber held nine patents – four for improvements to drains, three for water closets, one for manhole covers and the last for pipe joints.

“The most famous product credited to Thomas Crapper wasn’t invented by him at all. The ‘Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer’ was a system that elevated a toilet’s water-release tank high on the wall to take advantage of gravity.

A patent for this device was issued in 1819 to Albert Giblin, an employee of Crapper. It is likely that Crapper bought the patent rights from Giblin to market “Thos. Crapper’s patented Waterfall No. 1.”

Certainly he did install Waterfalls for many members of the royal family. However, he was never knighted with “Sir” — as commonly believed.

Ken Grabowski, a Crapper biographer and writer for Plumbing World Magazine, says the slang “crap” for human waste is derived from the German-Dutch “krappe” and Middle-English crappe – meaning smelly fish.

He posits that the slang for “toilet” was brought back from England after the First World War by American soldiers. They saw Crapper’s name displayed prominently on toilet tanks and flippantly substituted the more colorful term.


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language assures us that the eponym “Boycott” is properly credited.

Charles C. Boycott seems to have become a household information because of a strong sense of duty to his employer.

An Englishman, and former British soldier, Boycott was estate agent for the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. The earl was one of the absentee landowners who, as a group, held most of the land in Ireland.

Boycott was chosen in the fall of 1880 to be the test case for a new policy advocated by Charles Parnell, an Irish politician who wanted land reform.

Any landlord who would not lower rents, or any tenant who took over the farm of an evicted tenant, would be given the complete cold shoulder by Parnell supporters.

Boycott refused to lower the rents under his care and ejected the tenants.

At this point, members of Parnell’s Irish Land League stepped in. Boycott and his family found themselves secluded – without servants, farmhands, service in stores, or mail delivery.

Boycott’s name was quickly adopted as the term for this treatment – not just in English, but also in other languages such as French, Dutch, German and Russian. See also: boycotted, boycotting, boycotts and boycotter.

Perhaps the greatest insult to his memory is the without of capitalization of his name derivates.


Master of the verbal somersault was Rev. Dr. Archibald Spooner – wise and beloved Anglican priest at Oxford University 1876-1879. Fondly dubbed “The Spoo,” he lectured about history, philosophy and divinity and became dean of the institution.

His mind was so nimble, he sometimes inadvertently thought ahead of his speech and switched around syllables of words within a sentence.

For example, when the mental occurrence strikes, “a well-oiled bicycle” becomes “a well-boiled icicle.”

Spooner was said to “look like a white rabbit” because he was an albino — short, with a pink confront and eyes, large head and white hair.

He was genial in character with a strong sense of humor. He laughed loudest at his syllabic flip-flops.

Once he chastised a student who skipped class: “You hissed my mystery lecture.” His lectures were well attended for fear of missing a spoonerism.

Upon a visit by Queen Victoria, Spooner raised his glass to rule a toast: “Three cheers for our queer old dean!” Victoria allowed that the toast was the most accurate ever bestowed on her.

To the secretary of an Oxford department head, Spooner once inquired: “Is the bean dizzy?”

At a naval review, Spooner marveled “this characterize of cattle ships and bruisers.”

Officiating at a wedding, he concluded with: “Now it is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”

Spooner was annoyed at the hundreds of mispronunciations credited to him. He did let in, however, that on two occasions he produced them to press a point.

Today there are books of spoonerisms – mostly apocryphal.

President Abraham was fond of them. In a personal manuscript he jotted a triple play — “He said he was riding bass-akwards on a jass-ack by a patton-crotch.”

The most famous spoonerism committed by an American was that of Harry Von Zell, a famous radio broadcaster in 1931. In concluding a birthday tribute to President Herbert Hoover, Zell identified him to a national audience as “Hoobert Heever.”

Zell was teased about the gaffe for the rest of his illustrious career in movies and television.

“Fave hun.”

August 1, 2004

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