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Unlikely Word Origins Defined In 'Anonyponymous'

Nov 12, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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You might know that the tantalizing combination of peanut butter and jelly you're eating between two slices of bread was named after a certain Earl of Sandwich, but how many other words that we use every day are named after real people?

How about galvanize? Silhouette? Leotard?

These words — called eponyms — and many more fill a new book called Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words, written by John Bemelmans Marciano.

Some of the people who donated their names to history did it by accident.

"There was a woman named Mary Frisbie who made pies in Connecticut," Marciano tells Renee Montagne. "Students would throw around her pie plates after they had finished her pies, and kind of like you would say, 'Incoming!' they would say, 'Frisbie!' just to give people the heads-up that there was something spinning and flying coming at their head."

Meanwhile, the Wham-O corporation, producer of the hula hoop, was having trouble selling its own flying disk, awkwardly named "The Pluto Platter."

"They went around to college campuses, knowing that this was where trends started," Marciano says. "To their surprise, in the Northeast, people were already throwing flying disks, and they had this name 'Frisbie' for it."

For trademark purposes, "Frisbie" became "Frisbee," and a sensation was born.

Many words come from Greek roots, but the roots for "tantalize" run all the way to Greek myth about a misbehaving son of Zeus named Tantalus.

"Tantalus was punished by the gods," Marciano explains. "For all eternity, he had to stand in a river with fruit branches above him. And every time he reached up to take a bite of fruit, wind lifted the branch out of his hands, and whenever he tried to bend down to take a drink of water, the level of water went too low for him to drink."

Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister whose taxes "turned people into a shadow of themselves." Luigi Galvani was an Italian physicist who discovered that muscles can be forced to move when administered an electric shock. Jules Leotard was a French acrobat who invented the skintight one-piece athletic outfit.

Finding new eponyms can be addictive. But don't trust everything you read, says Marciano. There are plenty of phony eponyms floating around out there. Domenico De Comma wasn't actually killed by the Inquisition for attempting to punctuate the Bible. He never even existed in the first place.

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