Here are some familiar eponyms that are, justifiably or not, less than charitable to their namesakes.
Charles Boycott was simply doing his job as land agent for an absentee landlord when the Irish Land League decided that a work stoppage was needed to address exorbitant rents during a time of poor harvests. In addition to being shunned by his neighbors, Major Boycott couldn’t hire workers or shop in nearby towns and was even refused delivery of his mail by the local postman.
Imagine a legal system where even the slightest of crimes was a capital offense Welcome to the world of Draco, the first Athenian legislator. Under his administration, even owing money to a person of a higher caste would result your being sold into slavery to satisfy the debt. His legal system was so reviled that the person who abolished it has his own eponym, solon.
John Duns Scotus was, some would say unfairly, ridiculed for not changing with the times. The introduction of the king James Bible stirred much controversy and Scotus was on the wrong side of popular opinion. As such, he and his followers were ridiculed as Dunsmen or dunces. A fitting commemoration, perhaps, for any “scholar” who refused to consider any evidence other than his own.
The art of manipulating electoral districts to maintain the status quo or to opportunely gain a political edge has its roots in the very first years of the American experiment. The first half of the word is derived from the surname of Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, who, in 1812, attempted to redraw the senate districts of his state. The second half of this portmanteau word comes from the description of one of these districts by a critic as resembling a salamander.
Hector was the greatest warrior in all of Troy. His name has become synonymous with inflicting abuse or torment on someone else. Ironically, Hector did not display this characteristic but, instead, suffered it at the hands of Achilles. In fact, after their epic battle, Achilles tied the corpse of Hector to his chariot and defiled it by dragging it around the walls of Troy three times.
The Hindu world-lord, Jagannath, demanded blind devotion and absolute obedience from his followers. As his statue was carried on a huge wheeled cart, his more devout followers would throw themselves under the wheels to be crushed as sacrifices. The absolute indifference of the wagon’s god gave rise to the modern denotations of the word.
Jean Martinet was the Inspector General of the French Army under Louis Quatorze. He is recognized as the first modern advocate of extreme discipline in the armed services of a country. His revolutionary training regimen could turn raw recruits into a well-disciplined army in a matter of months. He was killed by friendly fire in an infantry action much like Lieutenant Niedermeyer.
Most people are familiar with the Marquis de Sade who gave his name to the term sadism. Far fewer are aware of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch who described his own submissive sexuality in a series of novels entitled The Legacy of Cain. In these novels, Mr. Sacher-Masoch is so infatuated by women that he volunteers to be their slaves. Much frivolity ensues.
Texans like to do things their own way and land baron, Samuel Maverick was no exception. While all his neighbors were busy solidifying their claim to cattle by branding them, Mr. Maverick refused to do so and claim any unbranded cattle as his own. As you can imagine, this iconoclasm led to more than a few arguments over ownership of particular animals.
The son of the founder of Babylon and a mighty hunter according to the Bible, Nimrod owes its current definition to a misunderstanding in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. By a strange twist of fate, Bugs refers to the befuddled Elmer Fudd as a “poor little nimrod” and the definition came to be associated with the “wabbit hunter” .instead of vice versa.
To win the battle but lose the war is the import of this term from antiquity. King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans but, upon being congratulated, he reportedly replied that, “One more victory like that will kill me.” The king was renowned for his grasp of the strategic as well as tactical ramifications of his battles.
While Benedict Arnold holds the premier place as the most notorious traitor in American history, Vidkun Quisling is probably more known around the world. A politician, Quisling collaborated with the Nazis from the very outset of their occupation of his country, Norway. He was rewarded twice for his treachery, once by the Nazis with the Presidency of Norway and once by the Allies with a firing squad.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the quintessential naysayer who can find no good while all those around him rejoice at Christmastime. Perhaps his observations should be revisited as the increased commercialization of the holiday leads many to disdain the self-serving and overly solicitous. Mr. Scrooge, for all the wrong reasons, may have just got it right.
Throughout history, the military establishment and its personnel have been instrumental in devising numerous and multifarious ways of killing each other. No one was more assiduously dedicated to this task than Major General Henry Schrapnel. This gentleman, on his own time and with his own funds, successfully developed the modern exploding artillery shell thus exponentially compounding its lethal effect. He was awarded a pension of $100,000 per year, in today’s dollars, for his efforts and earned the undying gratitude of his nation.
His transgressions remain mired in mystery, but, whatever they were, Tantalus was destined to live in torment for eternity. Ever thirsty and hungry, he stood in a pool of water that receded every time he tried to drink and next to an apple tree that raised its branches whenever he reached for a fruit.