January 01, 2015

What Are Tawdry Knickers?

Most of us dream of a noteworthy legacy—our fifteen minutes of fame spread on to eternity. Luckily for some, the English language is chock-full of eponyms—proper names that have slipped into general usage as other forms of speech. Over time, the term eponym itself has come to refer both to the immortal individuals themselves and the words they have spawned.

We ease the burden of the blind with the raised bumps of Louis Braille’s tactile language (braille), we celebrate our winter holidays with the flowers Joel Roberts Poinsett popularized from Mexico (poinsettias), and we revel in Samuel Augustus Maverick’s independent spirit (maverick). Yet while many of these historical figures live on with an etymological badge of honor, others have names that are (or should be) an inescapable and seemingly eternal embarrassment. Imagine the disappointment of having the sum total of your life reduced to sagging breasts (Astley Cooper), burned toast (Nellie Melba), or mouthwash (Joseph Lister).

Several years ago, I discovered that the flying shell fragments that often end up maiming and killing more people than the explosion itself are named for an actual British officer. That there could be a real person named Shrapnel seemed impossible to me. My curiosity piqued, I wondered how many more of these regrettable eponyms might exist. Soon these notorious namesakes began popping up everywhere. Boycott, Lynch (two of them!), “Tawdry,” “Knickers”—all real people. More surprisingly, they sometimes appeared in pairs. Not only was Silhouette an actual French minister much loathed by his countrymen, he was also friends with the bizarrely bouffanted Madame de Pompadour. Not only did Guillotin (and his family) forever regret his association with a ghastly device he neither invented nor perished by, he was also part of the scientific committee charged with investigating the dubious hypnotic practices of Dr. Mesmer.

Some are born notorious, while others have notoriety thrust upon them, and it seemed incumbent upon me to bring together this motley group of etymological misfits into one volume, and so this site and its accompanying book Tawdry Knickers and Other Unfortunate Ways to Be Remembered were born to shine new light on the hilarious highs and lamentable lows of their histories.

Some might ask, why another site and book of eponyms? In the same way that many cooks and farmers posit that we do not know enough about where our food comes from, I would argue that we know even less about where our language comes from. Tawdry Knickers and Other Unfortunate Ways to Be Remembered serves as an undercover tour of the etymological sausage factory. It is possible you may never speak the same way again.