Another look at English words

Immortality? Impossible. But what if something in a language is named after you? Then at least your name lives on - but not always in a dignified way!

Off we go to 18th century England. The Earl of Sandwich took gambling seriously and rather than stop the play of cards, had cold beef between two slices of toast delivered to him at the table - hence the word sandwich which so many languages have borrowed. The Earl played his last hand in 1792, but his name lives deliciously on.

Mr Bowler, a humble London hat-maker in the 1860’s, long ago hung up his hat, but his name survives - he invented the bowler, which Americans call a derby, perhaps from the hat commonly worn at the famous English horse race of the same name established by the Earl of Derby in 1780. Now, while horses still run and men wear hats, Mr Bowler and Earl Derby enjoy their measure of immortality.

While in London, let's visit Marble Arch, once called Tyburn, where the grim and charmless Mr Derick ensured the mortality of others. In Elizabethan times, he had the job of hanging criminals there. The gallows from which they were hanged came to be known as a derick and this has come down to us as derrick, which is the supporting structure on an oil well, or a type of crane used for freight or lifeboats on a ship.

Over to Ireland where the 19th century Captain Boycott declined to reduce rents. People refused to speak to him and from this has come the word boycott, to mean to ignore deliberately, a word many languages have taken over.

To Russia, where Lord Cardigan carelessly cut short the lives of many of his British soldiers in the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, but kept himself warm whilst the fighting raged by wearing a woollen jacket, now commonly known as a cardigan, and still very popular in the English winter.

Over in France, excessive patriotism and admiration of Napoleon brought ridicule to Nicolas Chauvin, but his name lives on in chauvinism, excessive patriotism and male chauvinism, a form of behaviour where a man arrogates to himself certain freedoms he believes should be denied to women.

In France, where surprisingly the 18th century Joseph Guillotin did not invent the guillotine - Mr Schmidt and Dr Louis must take the credit for this. But by chance, Guillotin's name now enjoys an inseparable connection with this machine which renders head and body so cleanly and speedily separable. Nowadays we use the verb guillotine to mean the stopping of the passage of a bill through parliament, and a machine for neatly cutting paper still has the same name.

Over to Northern Europe. The German, Fahrenheit, and the Swede, Celsius, offer us daily reminders of the weather although these two scientists are long since dead. Oddly, Celsius placed boiling point at O° but this was reversed a few years after he died.

Across the Atlantic, a book published in the 19th century purported to be a history of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Actually Washington Irving wrote the book, and people called Knickerbocker probably still curse him to this day. Knickerbocke came to be used to describe any New Yorker in the 19th century, and survives in the basketball team the New York Knickerbockers. Another meaning crept in to describe a fashion in trousers and from this comes the modern word knickers used in England to mean plain underwear, such as is worn by schoolgirls, and sometimes as a humorous synomym for panties. It is also an impolite single word reply meaning what you’re saying is rubbish - Nickers!

To the West Indies, where the 17th century English Admiral Vernon, responsible for the fleet patrolling the area, wore a jacket made of grogham. His sailors hated his decree that future issues of rum to the men should be diluted with water. He was called Old Grog and from that has come grog to mean a mixture of rum and water. French and German have borrowed this, but it's more common to use hot toddy in English now, although the adjective groggy - originally drunk, but now how a boxer feels after recovering from a knockout, or how we feel the first time we get up after a bad attack of flu - is common. Vernon's unpopular order has ensured, if not his own immortality, at least that of his jacket.

Adapted from an article by Bob Wilde.

Duke of Wellington - Wellington Boots, or wellies


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