Eponyms: the changelings of etymology

Looking in words is like stargazing. You constantly discover new examples, new connections and hidden facets.

If you open the four-volume Etymological dictionary of Dutch (EWN) at random, for example on page 100 (part 1), you will find the word 'admiral', shortened from Arabic.

Page 400 contains the entry "bulldozer," derived from a word that originally meant "one who beats niggers" in English.

On page 150 (part 2) you will find the word 'gabber', 'young person who loves music', a word that comes from the Bargoens. On page 350 (part 3) you will find the word 'mikado', 'game with chopsticks', taken from one of the titles of the Japanese emperor.

Page 450 (part 4) contains the word 'tattoo', which comes from the travel journal of British Captain James Cook and is derived from the word 'tattow' from 'tatau', Tahitian for 'sign', 'painting'. Five random words on five random pages.

Five bridges also to the countless Arabic words in Dutch, to the deep south of the United States, to the countless words from Bargoens and Japanese (think of 'japon') or to the spectacular explorations of Captain James Cook and his residence on Tahiti.

It's really that simple. "Words are signs on the walls of caves and caves, which are our lives. Traces of people who passed by and dissolved in the sky, or turned into a square, a statue, a cigar brand, an airplane," Harry Mulisch once wrote. (Mulish 1961).

There are many thousands of these naming words – eponyms, geonyms or brand names – in Dutch. The brand names are unlimited in number anyway.

Eponyms are very suitable for telling stories, attaching history to them, bringing forgotten people to life and giving words a face.

People were born somewhere, lived somewhere, were embedded in their time and maybe they're buried somewhere too, so you can say hello to them, if you like.

By the way, the way they have crawled into a word gives a good idea of how language works and how words can come into existence. In countless ways.

It can be a German or a Scottish engineer ('diesel' and 'watt' respectively) or a Scottish road builder ('maca-dam') or also a character from a cartoon ('Calimero'), an animal ('jumbo' )…

And don't forget the first four eponyms that come to mind here, none of them in that nearly three-thousand-page EWN.

Even the 'kop-van-jut' did not make it, neither as 'kop', nor as 'Jut', both in Van Dale. Kir maybe? From Kir Royal? No. Carpaccio? It goes without saying that eponyms in linguistics are neglected children. And there are explanations for that.

Eponyms have no interesting, deep roots from an etymological point of view and do not go back to Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European. As a linguist you come across a surname, and that's where the search ends.

You dig your spade into the ground and you only find some body remains. Being recalcitrant (indeed included in the EWN) you could also say: at that moment a new search begins.

After all, there is no more rewarding subject than a word with a face, be it didactic, educational or journalistic. A good story is never far away. An example.

For example, relatively little has been written about the life of Israel David Kiek (1811-1899), the photographer after whom the snapshot is named (Leijerzapf 1997).

It is always surprising that the word has nothing to do with the verb 'look'. His biography takes us to Leiden, the oldest university city in the Netherlands. And Kiek did have a lot to do with students.

What were those almanacs of the 'Leidsch Studenten Corps', in which Kiek is described? What was student life like in the second half of the 19th century? Why were there so many students from South Africa? Because they too took the word 'snap' home with them, like all the other students.

What kind of photographer was Kiek? A portraitist. What techniques did he use? How old was photography then? Where did this new art come from? Who was the inventor of it? And who was the photographer? The undertaker, the 'dental master' and the dyer, it turns out.

How so? What did such a photo look like at that time, what should it look like? Yes, as if the image was destined for eternity, just like a painting. How was it then possible that Kiek also captured 'the issues of the day', the fleeting moment; wasn't a photo too expensive for that?

Or were the students necessarily wealthy?

Why didn't Kiek sign these photos and others? Kiek was a Jew. Could that have something to do with it? He was previously registered as a box maker, carpenter, 'meat cutter', lottery collector and trader. Cigar dealer?

Why did he live in the Levendaal in Leiden for a long time? How close were those Jewish communities in the Netherlands in the 19th century? How common was it for a Jewish father to train his five sons as photographers and then send them out into the world, as far as Paris?

The Paris of car manufacturer André Citroën, grandson of the Amsterdam diamond dealer Citroën. Can anyone be surprised that Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz are listed as places of death for ten of Kiek's grandchildren?

All questions about the simple life of a poor photographer from Leiden who almost casually slipped into a Dutch word with his last name.

And so it is with all those 'changed children': with the Italian Renaissance painter Carpaccio, who appears in an Italian dish, with Félix Kir – of the kir royal – an eccentric village pastor, run away from a Don Camillo film, except that he has the priesthood and the mayoralty, with the mayor of Dijon who removed 5,000 people from concentration camps and was good friends during the Cold War with the Soviet Russian president Khrushchev and with the German engineer Rudolf Diesel who on 29 September 1913 in Antwerp on a boat towards England stepped and never arrived in Harwich.

Had the German secret service killed him? Not to mention Hendrik Jut. Eponyms come in all shapes and sizes and are related to all subjects: economics (who were Dow and Jones?), physics (what do those Hertz indications do on all computers?), chemistry (Mendeleev's table)…

In addition, there are names of fruit (clementines from Algeria and granny smiths from Australia), and of plants (the shrewd Hortense of the hydrangeas), mathematical concepts (Fibonacci) and many wonderful words that can hardly be classified, from 'teddy bear' to ' jumbo'.

Fascinating lives from which pieces and bits of history can be unearthed; stories that stick because they take the words, the word science, out of the abstraction. They draw attention to the word as such.

In all words, say: there are always new copies, new connections and hidden facets. Like looking at the stars.

Taalunie.org 2010