Descriptive Words: The History Of A Few People Words

Examines origins of descriptive English words and phrases deriving from the names of people.

Behind every word lurks a story, an etymology. Some of the most interesting words and phrases in the English language derive from the names of people. Although these words are often somewhat obscure, their unique stories make them interesting. For example,the word QUISLING. Only 60 years old, Quisling is a recent addition to the English language via Norway. The story is this. After the Nazis occupied Norway during WWII, Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian fascist, was installed as prime minister. Quisling urged Norwegians not to resist Nazi hegemony, but his advice was ignored, and Norwegian resistance became substantial. Since that time, English had added the word "quisling" for any traitor as in this expression--" Quislings of that stripe deserve execution."

CHAUVINISM is another people word. It entered English during the 1800s via France. Nicholas Chauvin was a fictional character in a play by Hippolyte Taine. The fictional Chauvin was excessively devoted to Napoleon; hence, originally a chauvinist was a super-patriot. Over time, however, the meaning changed to a male excessively impressed by his own sex.

A PYRRHIC VICTORY is a victory won at enormous price. It owes its origins to Pyrrhus, a general of the Greek city-state Epirus. Around 200 B.C. Pyrrhus led his forces to victory in Macedonia; later he took his troops to Italy on behalf of an ally. A victory was won, but at great cost. After the battle Pyrrhus was said to have declared, "One more victory such as that, and I am lost." Thus any victory won at great cost can be called a Pyrrhic victory.

Little used today, but still recorded in unabridged dictionaries, a GARRISON'S FINISH is a horse-racing term derived from the late 19th Century jockey, Snapper Garrison. Born shortly after the Civil War, Garrison was taken under the wing of trainer Bill Daley, legendary for his use of any means short of murder to get his jockeys to ride faster. Daley nicknamed Garrison "Snapper" (possibly because of his use of the whip). Garrison, despite his tendency to put on weight, became the king of American jockeys for five years between 1892 and 1897.

A Garrison's finish is a close finish won in come-from-behind fashion. According to racing writer, Ron Hale this term faded from sports lexicon somewhere around the 1950s as working sports writers became less and less knowledgeable about track history.

An ICAREAN FLIGHT, i.e., one that ends in disaster, of course, owes its name to Icarus, the mythological son of Daedalus. Daedalus, according to legend, was a master craftsman who under the aegis of King Minos of Crete built a cage to house the flesh-eating, half-man, half-bull Minotaur. The cage was a blind-alleyed fortress known as the Labyrinth. However, Minos grew angry with Daedalus after Daedalus helped Pasiphae fall in love with the Minotaur. Thus, Daedalus and his son were imprisoned on an island.

Seeing only one means of escape, Daedalus fashioned wings from feathers which he then strapped onto his and Icarus' back. Heedless of his father's warnings, Icarus, intoxicated by flight, flew too close to the sun, thereby melting the wax that held his feathered wings. Hence, disastrous ventures can be called Icarean.

HOBSON'S CHOICE is currently the name of a rock band. However, the original Hobson was an 18th century English blacksmith who rented horses, all of the spavine and sway-backed variety. When clients complained, Hobson pointed out that they were free to choose to go elsewhere to rent a nag. Unfortunately, the nearest town lay 18 miles distant. Thus, even today we remember Hobson by calling two equally-bad options a Hobson's choice.

The British call an airstrip composed of asphalt and crushed stone a TARMAC. Tarmac, short for tarmacadam, derives from the name of Scottish engineer, John MacAdam, the alleged 18th Century inventor of rock/asphalt road surfacing material. "Alleged inventor" refers to the fact that some argue that MacAdam merely patented the stone and asphalt road-building process whereas it was Lord Cochrane who invented it. MacAdam apparently invented another road surface not involving tar, but rather a mixture of rock and limestone. The limestone when pulverized to dust by horses' hooves and then wetted provided a smooth surface. However, the invention of the rubber tire made MacAdam's road-building technique obsolete. Despite this, combined rock and asphalt surfaces are today often referred to as macadmized or macadam.

Beef or you-name-it STROGANOFF, as every chef knows, is a combination of sour cream, mushrooms, and bouillon in a rich sauce. The term owes its origins to Russian Count Stroganoff, who was just one of an illustrious, wealthy family of pre-communist Russian aristocrats well known for their patronage of art.

And finally, there is a MURPHY BED, one of those space-saving wall-beds often found in apartments. William Murphy was a young apartment-dweller in San Francisco at the turn of the century. Much given to party-giving, Murphy invented the folding-bed named after him and went on to become president of a thriving company that still exists, though under another name. Hence Murphy beds.

© High Speed Ventures 2011