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When proper names become everyday words

People’s names show up in the English language in surprising places, such as "pasteurized milk" and "ham sandwiches."

University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss eponyms, or words that are derived from proper names, on this week’s edition of That’s What They Say.

The verb pasteurized is an eponym. It comes into the English language in 1881 from the name Louis Pasteur, who invented the pasteurization process.

Sandwich is also an eponym.

“We think that the word comes from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was a gambler, and once he spent 24 hours at the table gambling, and all he had to eat was meat between two slices of bread," Curzan explains.  Thus, the sandwich was named after him.  

The adjective ritzy is yet another eponym. Unrelated to the crackers, ritzy came from hotels.

“César Ritz, a Swiss hotelier, founded many ritzy hotels, including the Hotel Ritz in Paris,” Curzan describes. “Because those hotels were quite nice, we derived the adjective from his name.”

Finally, sideburns comes from General Ambrose Everett Burnside, a leader of the Union Army during the American Civil War. General Burnside was known for his bushy side-whiskers, which were called burnsides by 1875.  

When General Burnside died, people forgot where the word burnside came from. This facial hair was also referred to as side-whiskers, so the word was reversed to the modern term sideburns.

If your name was an eponym, what would it mean? Let us know by leaving a comment on our Facebook page or on our website!

-Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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