Does anyone fancy a ham and cheese stamford? You might be eating one right now if that particular Earl had invented what we all now know as the sandwich. Here are some other origins of words that come from people’s names.

It’s a famous story but let’s just recap for a moment. The Earl of Sandwich is sat at his gambling table. He is in the middle of a game and he feels peckish. The earl likes to eat slices of roast beef in-between meals, however, on this occasion, he didn’t want to leave the game or get his hands greasy from the meat.

So he asked his servant to place the meat between two slices of bread so he could hold it with one hand and continue playing with the other. The humble sandwich is born and it is so ingrained into our minds we even use it as a verb.

But what if a different Earl had come up with this request? We might all be calling the humble sandwich something completely different, like a stamford. Isn’t it funny how words just embed themselves into our subconscious without us really knowing their origins?

Here are 10 examples of the little-known origins of widely used words that come from people’s names:

  1. Bloomers

Women’s underwear

Amelia Bloomer was a 19-century Women’s Rights activist. Her newspaper ‘Lily’ changed the way women viewed themselves. It encouraged women to stand up for their rights and included radical dress reform.

This might seem frivolous to us now, but in those days, women wore restrictive corsets and dresses fitted with huge skirts. Amelia championed a new style of clothing for women – the pantaloons, basically baggy trousers. Due to her endless campaigning, the pantaloons became known as ‘bloomers’.

  1. Boycott

To abstain from using

The word boycott seems to have been in use since the Middle Ages, but in fact, it was only coined a couple of centuries ago. Moreover, the word originates from a man. Conversely, the man associated with the word was being boycotted himself.

Captain Charles Boycott was an unscrupulous landlord in the late 19-century. He had a habit of charging exorbitant rents for his tenants and evicting them if they couldn’t pay. As a result, farmers shunned him and so we have the word boycott.

  1. Cardigan

A knitted garment

This is another word that originates from an Earl. James Brudenell was a military hero. Not only did he fight in the Crimean War but he actually led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

His troops had to endure a ferocious onslaught and a harsh Russian winter but Brudenell used his own wealth to kit out his soldiers with knitted woollen waistcoats. The earl was the Earl of Cardigan.

  1. Decibel

Unit of measurement

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but did you know that the word decibel is also attributed to him?

Telephone engineers needed a word to describe the efficiency of telephone circuits to replace ‘transmission units’. They decided on the ‘bel’ after the telephone’s inventor Bell. However, a bel is too large in practice so the prefix ‘deci’ was added to denote one-tenth of the measurement.

  1. Dunce

Ignorant person

Poor old John Duns Scotus. This theologian was widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of his time. His ideas ranged from philosophy to language, morality, even metaphysics. He wrote papers and had encyclopaedic knowledge.

Hugely popular in the 13-century, his ideas fell out of favour in the 16-century thanks to the Protestants who disliked his work. They used his name to dispute his theories and it became synonymous with an ignorant person.

  1. Leotard

Stretchy one-piece garment

Jules Leotard was a French acrobat who joined the circus and devised his own trapeze act in 1859. In order to show off his amazing feats on the high wire, and to make sure no loose clothing got in the way of his act, he designed a one-piece garment.

This garment was tight-fitting with long sleeves and eventually became known as a leotard.

  1. Masochism

To derive satisfaction from other’s pain

Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a 19-century Austrian journalist and writer. In 1869 he persuaded his mistress to serve as a slave for him for 6 months. He then used the experience to write a novella ‘Venus in Furs’.

The novella described the degradation of the main character. It was so influential that in 1886, esteemed Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined the term ‘masochism’ to depict satisfaction from another’s pain.

  1. Maverick

An independent person who thinks differently

Samuel Maverick was a cattle rancher in mid-Texas in the 19-century. At the time, by law, all ranchers had to brand their cattle but Maverick refused.

Funnily enough, if you look up ‘maverick’ in the dictionary, in North America it can also mean ‘an unbranded calf’.

  1. Shrapnel

Pieces of a bullet, bomb or other explosive

Shrapnel’s just shrapnel, isn’t it? Surely, it doesn’t originate from a person’s name? This is another word like a sandwich.

It sounds exactly like the thing it represents, but it comes from a guy called Henry Shrapnel. Shrapnel spent decades devising ways to develop bombs and shells that caused the most damage when they exploded.

  1. Pompadour

A type of hairstyle

There aren’t many of us that get to have a hairstyle named in our honour. There’s the Rachel from Friends and there’s Madame de Pompadour.

The Madame was a big thing in French society in the 18-century. She was a mistress to King Louis XV and his political advisor. Her signature hairstyle has lived on with many celebrities wearing it in their own inimitable style, including John Travolta, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Johnnie Cash, Justin Timberlake, and David Beckham.

Isn’t funny when you think about the origins of well-known words and how some come from actual people? Oh well, I must get on, that ham and cheese stamford isn’t going to eat itself.


  2. Featured image: portrait of Marquise de Pompadour

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Leo

    You might want to check the meaning of Masochism because you are confusing it with Sadism

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