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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 19986

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Many words have been taken from the names of people, saints and sinners, men who have helped on human progress and men who have tried to stand in its way, from queens and kings and nobles, and from quite humble people.

One large group of words has been made from the names of great inventors. All through history men have been inventing new things. We realize this if we think of what England is like to-day, and what it was like in the days of the early Britons. But even by the time of the early Britons many things had been invented which the earlier races of men had not known. Perhaps the greatest inventor the world has ever known was the man who first discovered how to make fire; but we shall never know who he was.

The people who discovered how to make metal weapons instead of the stone weapons which early men used were great inventors too; and those who discovered how to grow crops of corn and wheat, and so gave new food to the human race. But all this happened in times long past, before men had any idea of writing down their records, and so these inventors have not left their names for us to admire.

But in historical times, and especially in the centuries since the Renaissance, there have been many inventors, and it will be interesting to see how the things they invented got their names. The word inventor itself means a "finder," and comes to us from the Latin word invenio, "I find."

The greatest number of inventions have been made in the last hundred and fifty years. The printing-press was, of course, a great invention of the fifteenth century, but it was simply called the printing-press, and did not take the name of its inventor. Yet this was a new name too, for the people of the Middle Ages would not have known what a printing-press was.

Several early printers have, however, had their names preserved in the description of the beautiful books they produced. All lovers of rare books are admirers of what they call Aldines and Elzevirs-that is, books printed at the press of Aldo Manuzio and his family at Venice in the sixteenth century, and by the Elzevir family in Holland in the seventeenth century.

We speak of a Bradshaw and a Baedeker to describe the best-known of all railway guides and guide-books. The first takes its name from George Bradshaw, a map engraver, who was born in Manchester in 1801, and lived there till he died, in 1853. In 1839 he published on his own account "Bradshaw's Railway Time Table," of which he changed the name to "Railway Companion" in the next year. He corrected it a few days after the beginning of each month by the railway time sheets, but even then the railway companies sometimes made changes later in the month. In a short time, however, the companies agreed to fix their time tables monthly, and in December 1841 Bradshaw was able to publish the first number of "Bradshaw's Monthly Railway Guide." Six years afterwards he published the first number of "Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide."

The famous series of guides now called Baedekers take their name from Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who in the first half of the nineteenth century began to publish this famous series.

Members of Parliament still speak of the volumes containing the printed record of what goes on in Parliament as Hansard. This name comes from that of the first publisher of such records, Luke Hansard, who was printer to the House of Commons from 1798 until he died, in 1828. His family continued to print the reports as late as 1889, and though the work is now shared by other firms, the name is still kept.

Not only books but musical instruments are frequently called after their makers. The two most famous and valuable kinds of old violins take their names from the Italian family of the Amati, who made violins in the sixteenth century, and Antonio Stradivari, who was their pupil. An Amati and a Stradivarius, often called a "Strad" for short, are the names now given by musicians to the splendid old violins made by these people.

The names of many flowers have been taken from the names of persons, and this still goes on to-day when new varieties of roses or sweet peas are called after the person who first grew them, or some friend of this person. These modern names are not, as a rule, very romantic, but some of the older ones are interesting. The dahlia, for instance, was called after Dahl, a Swedish botanist, who was a pupil of the great botanist Linn?us, after whom the chief botanical society in England, the Linn?an Society, is called. The lobelia was so called after Matthias de Lobel, a Flemish botanist and physician to King James I. The fuchsia took its name from Leonard Fuchs, a sixteenth-century botanist, the first German who really studied botany.

There are many more new things and names to-day than in earlier times, names which our grand-parents and even our parents did not know when they were children. We talk familiarly now about aeroplanes and the different kinds of aeroplanes, such as the monoplane, biplane, etc. But these are new names invented in the last twenty years. Some of the names of airships and aeroplanes are very interesting. The Taube, for instance, is so called from the German word meaning "dove," because it looks very like a bird when it is up in the sky. The great German airships called Zeppelins took their name from the German Count Zeppelin, who invented them; and the splendid French airships called Fokkers also take their name from their inventor, and so does the Gotha-name of ill-fame.

The man who first discovered gunpowder is forgotten, but many of the powerful guns which are used in modern warfare are called after their inventors. The Gatling gun is not much talked of to-day, but it was a famous gun in its time, and took its name from the American inventor, Richard Jordan Gatling, who lived in the early nineteenth century, and devoted his life to inventions. Some were peaceable inventions, like machines for sowing cotton and rice; but he is best remembered by the great gun to which he gave his name.

Another famous gun of which we have heard a great deal in the Great War is the Maxim gun, which again took its name from its inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim. The shrapnel, of which also so much was heard in the Great War, the terrible shells which burst a certain time after leaving the gun without striking against anything, took its name from its inventor. The chief peculiarity of shrapnel is that the bullets fall from above in a shower from the shell as it bursts in the air.

But there are many other names which we should not easily guess to come from the names of inventors. People talk of a macadamized road without knowing that these roads are so called because they are made in the way invented by John M'Adam, who lived from 1756 to 1836. The name macadam is often used now to denote the material used in making roads. Sometimes this material is of a sort which John M'Adam would not have approved of at all, for he did not believe in pouring a fluid material over the stones, or in the heavy rollers which are now often used in making new roads.

Another useful article, the homely mackintosh, takes its name from that of another Scotsman, Charles Macintosh, who lived at the same time as M'Adam. It was he who first, in 1823, finished the invention of a waterproof cloth.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many great discoveries were made in science, and many names of discoverers and inventors have been preserved in scientific words. Galvanism, one branch of electricity, took its name from Luigi Galvani, an Italian professor, who made great discoveries about electricity in the bodies of animals. Every one has heard of a galvanic battery, but not everybody knows how it got its name.

Mesmerism, or the science by which the human mind is influenced by suggestions from itself or another mind, took its name from Friedrich Anton Mesmer, who first made great discoveries about animal magnetism.

Another famous discoverer of the powers of electricity, and one who is still a young man, is Guglielmo Marconi, a native of Bologna. It was he who invented the great system of wireless telegraphy which is now used in nearly all big ships. In 1899 he first succeeded in sending a message in this way from England to France, and in the next year he sent one right across the Atlantic. Now ships frequently send a Marconigram home when they are right in the middle of the ocean; and many lives have been saved through ships in distress having been able to send out wireless messages which have brought other vessels steaming up to their aid. In fact, this invention of Marconi's is, perhaps, the greatest of all modern inventions, and it is but right that it should preserve his name.

A different kind of invention has preserved the name of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, an eighteenth-century nobleman, who was so fond of card games that he could not bear to leave the card table even to eat his meals, and so invented what has ever since been called by his name-the sandwich.

Not unlike the origin of the name sandwich is that of Abernethy biscuits, so called after the doctor who invented the recipe for making them.

It was another doctor, the French physician, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who gave his name to the guillotine, the terrible knife with which people were beheaded in thousands during the French Revolution. Guillotin did not really invent it, nor was he himself guillotined, as has often been said. The guillotine is supposed to have been invented long ago in Persia, and was used in the Middle Ages both in Italy and Germany. The Frenchman whose name it bears was a kindly person, who merely advised this method of execution at the time of the French Revolution, because he thought, and rightly, that if people were to be beheaded at all, it should be done swiftly and not clumsily.

But many things are called by the names of persons who were not inventors at all.

Sometimes a new kind of clothing is called after some great person just to make it seem distinguished. A Chesterfield overcoat is so called because the tailor who first gave this kind of coat that name wished to suggest that it had all the elegance displayed in the clothing of the famous eighteenth-century dandy, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield. So the well-known Raglan coats and sleeves took their name first from an English general, Baron Raglan, who fought in the Crimean War. Both Wellington and Blücher, the two generals who fought together and defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, gave their names to different kinds of boots. Bluchers are strong leather half boots or high shoes, and Wellingtons are high riding boots reaching to the bend of the knee at the back of the leg, and covering the knee in front. Wellington is supposed to have worn such boots in his campaigns.

Another article of clothing which was very popular with ladies at one time was the Garibaldi blouse, which was so called after the red shirts which were worn by the followers of the famous soldier who won liberty for Italy, Garibaldi.

The rather vulgar name for ladies' divided skirts-bloomers-came from the name of an American woman, Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who used to wear a skirt which reached to her knee, and then was divided into Turkish trousers tied round her ankles.

A great many different kinds of carriages and vehicles have been called by the names of people. The brougham, which is still a favourite form of closed carriage, got its name from Lord Brougham. The old four-wheeled carriage with a curved glass front got its name from the Duke of Clarence, who afterwards became King William IV.; and the carriage known as the Victoria was so called as a compliment to Queen Victoria. We do not hear much of this kind of carriage now; but the two-wheeled cab known as the hansom is still to be seen in the streets of London, in spite of the coming of the taxicab. This form of conveyance took its name from an architect who invented it in 1834. An earlier kind of two-wheeled carriage invented a few years before this, but which was displaced by the hansom, was the stanhope, also called after its inventor. The general name for a two-wheeled carriage of this sort used to be the phaeton, and this was not taken from any person, but from the sun-chariot in which, according to the old Greek story, the son of Helios rode to destruction when he had roused the anger of the great Greek god, Zeus.

The names of old Greeks and Romans have given us many words. We speak of a very rich man as a Cr?sus, a word which was the name of a fabulously rich tyrant in Ancient Greece. A person who is supposed to be a great judge of food, and devoted to the pleasures of the table, is called an epicure, from the old Greek philosopher Epicurus, who taught that the chief aim of life was to feel pleasure. The word cynic, too, comes from the name given to certain Greek philosophers who despised pleasure. The name was originally a nickname for these philosophers, and was taken from the Greek word kunos, "dog."

We describe a person who chooses to live a very hard life as a Spartan, because the people of the old Greek state of Sparta planned their lives so that every one should be disciplined and drilled to make good soldiers, and were never allowed to indulge in too much comfort or too many amusements, lest they should become lazy in mind and weak in body. A Draconian system of law is one which has no mercy, and preserves the name of Draco, a statesman who was appointed to draw up laws for the Athenians six hundred and twenty-one years before the birth of Our Lord, and who drew up a very strict code of laws.

The word mausoleum, which is now used to describe any large or distinguished tomb, comes from the tomb built for Mausolus, king of Caria (in Greek Asia Minor), by his widow, Artemisia, in 353 B.C. The tomb itself, which rises to a height of over one hundred and twelve feet, is now to be seen in the British Museum.

The verb to hector, meaning "to bully," is taken from the name of the Trojan hero Hector, in the famous old Greek poem, the Iliad. Hector was not, as a matter of fact, a bully, but a very brave man, and it is curious that his name should have come to be used in this unpleasant sense. The other great Greek poem, the Odyssey, has given us the name of one of its characters for a fairly common English word. A mentor is a person who gives us wise advice, but the original Mentor was a character in this great poem, the wise counsellor of Telemachus.

From the names of great Romans, too, we have many words. If we describe a person as a Nero, every one knows that this means a cruel tyrant. Nero was the worst of all the Roman emperors, and the story tells that he was so heartless that he played on his violin while watching the burning of Rome. Some people even said that he himself set the city on fire. Again, the name of Julius C?sar, who was the first imperial governor of Rome, though he was never called emperor, has given us a common name. C?sar came to mean "an emperor;" and the modern German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar come from this name of the "noblest Roman of them all."

An earlier Roman was Fabius Cunctator (or "Fabius the Procrastinator"), a general who, instead of fighting actual battles with the Carthaginian Hannibal, the great enemy of Rome, preferred to tire him out by keeping him waiting and never giving battle. His name has given us the word Fabian, to describe this kind of tactics.

The name by which people often describe an unscrupulous politician now is Machiavellian, an adjective made from the name of a great writer on the government of states. At the time of the Renaissance in Italy, Machiavelli, in his famous book called "The Prince," took it for granted that every ruler would do anything, good or bad, to arrive at the results he desired.

Another common word taken at first from politics, but now used in a general sense, is boycott. To boycott a person means to be determined to ignore or take no notice of him. A child may be "boycotted" by disagreeable companions at school. Another expression for the same disagreeable method is to "send to Coventry."

But the political boycotting from which the word passed into general use took place in Ireland, when any one with whose politics the Irish did not agree was treated in this way. The first victim of this kind of treatment was Captain Boycott of County Mayo in 1880. So useful has this word been found that both the French and Germans have borrowed it. The French have now the word boycotter, and the Germans boycottieren.

Another Irish name which has given us a common word is Burke. Sometimes in a discussion one person will tell another that he burkes the question. This means that he is avoiding the real subject of debate. Or a rumour may be burked, or "hushed up." In this way the subject is, as it were, smothered. And it was from this meaning that the name came to be used as a general word. William Burke was an Irish labourer who was executed in 1829, when he was found guilty of having murdered several people. His habit had been to smother them, so that their bodies did not show how they had died, and sell their bodies to a doctor for dissection. From this dreadful origin we have the new use of this fine old Irish name.

People who love books are often very indignant when the editors of a new edition of an old book think it proper to leave out certain passages which they think are indecent or unsuitable for people to read. This is called "expurgating" the book; but people who disapprove often call it to bowdlerize. This word comes from the name of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 published an edition of Shakespeare's works in which, as he said, "those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

Sometimes a badly-dressed or peculiar-looking person is described as a guy. This word comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plotter, through the effigies, or "guys," which are often burned in bonfires on November 5th.

Certain Christian names have, for reasons which it is not easy to see, given us words which mean "fool" or "stupid person." The word ninny comes from Innocent. Noddy probably comes from Nicodemus or Nicholas. Both these names are used to mean "foolish person" in France, and so is benêt, which comes from Benedict.

Some saints' names have given us words which do not seem at first sight to have any connection with them. The word maudlin, by which we mean "foolishly sentimental," comes from the name of St. Mary Magdalen, a saint whose name immediately suggests to us sorrow and weeping. The word maudlin suggests the idea of being ready to weep unnecessarily. In this way a word describing a disagreeable quality is taken from the name of one of the most honoured saints.

The word tawdry, by which we mean cheap and showy things with no real beauty, comes from St. Audrey, another name for St. Etheldreda, who founded Ely Cathedral. In the Middle Ages St. Audrey's Fair used to be held at Ely, and as fairs are always full of cheap and showy things, it was from this that the word tawdry came.

St. Anthony's fire is a well-known name for erysipelas, and St. Vitus's dance for another distressing disease. These names came from the fact that these saints used to be chosen out as the special patrons of people suffering from such diseases. In the same way the disease which used to be called the King's Evil was so named because people formerly believed that persons suffering from it would be cured if touched by the hands of the king or the queen. On certain occasions, even down to the time of Queen Anne, English kings and queens "touched" crowds of sufferers from this disease.

So in these words taken from the names of people we may read many a story of love and sorrow and wonder, of disgust and every human passion.

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