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Top 30 Common English Words That Are Derived from Names of People (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. To read the part I of this series, click this link 9. Dunce.   This alternative word for a stupid perso...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

9. Dunce.  This alternative word for a stupid person owes its origins to John Duns Scotus, a previously well-regarded, beatified (i.e., declared as holy and worthy of reverence by the Catholic Church), Oxford-educated Catholic theologian who lived from about 1265 to 1308. European historians acknowledge him as one of the three most influential thinkers of his time, that is, the 12th and 13 centuries. People who subscribed to his philosophy were called “duns” or “dunsmen.” At the time the terms emerged, they weren’t derogatory; they were merely descriptive. However, when many of Scotus’ ideas were disproved by the emergent philosophers of the English Reformation and his adherents still stubbornly clung to his discredited ideas, “duns” came to be associated with stupidity, especially obstinate stupidity. The spelling of “duns” evolved over time to the modern spelling. Other derivatives of the word are duncical or duncish (as in: “he is such a duncical/duncish bigot”), duncishness, and duncishly.
John Duns Scotus
John Duns Scotus

In American (and some English-speaking European) elementary schools, students are often made to wear “dunce caps” (pointed hats made of paper) and confined to the corner of the class as punishment for bad behavior and stupidity.

Just like the example of chauvinism, the semantic evolution of “dunce” from a term to describe an adherent of the philosophy of Duns Scotus to a term that means an irredeemably stupid person illustrates how ideas that once commanded awe in one era can become the object of profound derision in later times.

10. Galvanize. Scientists use this word in association with electricity. In scientific usage, to galvanize is “to charge with electric current” or “to coat iron or steel with zinc by charging it with electricity.” In popular usage, however, the word usually means to rouse or stimulate a group of people to action (as in: he galvanized popular support for his policy). In other words, it means to inspire.

The word is traced to Luigi Galvani (1739-1798), an Italian medical scientist and philosopher well-known for his discovery that “the muscles of dead frogs legs twitched when struck by a spark.” Most of us non-scientists relate only to the word’s metaphoric extension, that is, the notion of galvanize as stimulation to act. Other derivatives of the word are galvanization, galvanism, galvanizer (i.e., one who inspires people to action), galvanic (i.e., thrilling, as in: the union leader’s galvanic speech boosted workers’ resolve to embark on a strike), galvanist, galvanically.
Luigi Galvani

11. Grangerize. To grangerize is defined in modern dictionaries as “illustrate a book with pictures, diagrams, etc. taken from other published sources.” The noun form of the word is grangerization, and it’s derived from James Granger (1723-76), “a British writer and clergyman, who published in 1769 a Biographical History of England with blank leaves for illustrations,” according to Alphadictionary. “The filling up of a 'Granger' became so popular that other books were published similarly.”
James Granger
James Granger

12. Guillotine. This instrument for cutting off people’s heads as punishment for wrongdoing is named after a popular French physician, medical reformist, and politician by the name of Joseph Ignace Guillotin who lived from 1738 to 1814. Alphadictionary says the instrument is named after Dr. Guillotin because he invented it. But that’s inaccurate. The instrument was actually invented by a certain Dr. Antoine Louis. Guillotin became associated with it because he forcefully advocated its use as an alternative to the more cruel method of decapitation in France at the time, which was by hanging (for poor people) or by an axe or a sword (for the rich). He called the guillotine “a machine that beheads painlessly.”

But it was not until he unwittingly claimed ownership of the machine during a speech that French people—and the rest of the world—named it after him, initially in jest. During a speech during which he made a case for the use of the decapitation machine (then called a “louisette” or “louison” in honor of its inventor, Dr. Antoine Louis) as a prelude to the total abolition of the death penalty, he said, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” The French press pilloried him for the seemingly blithe unconcern with which he spoke about decapitation, and the public jocularly called the machine his.
Joseph Ignace Guillotin
Joseph Ignace Guillotin

 In time, the machine came to be known as guillotine (note the addition of “e”) even in formal circles. When that semantic transition occurred, Guillotin’s family beseeched the French government to change the machine’s name to save the family from the infamy of being associated with the name of a decapitation machine. The government didn’t oblige them, but gave them the option to change their last names to something else, which they did. Interestingly, according to French historians, a Dr. Guillotin, who is no relation of Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, was once beheaded by the guillotine. Many people at the time thought it was the famous Dr. Guillotin who had been beheaded by the machine that was named after him.

According to the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language published in 2000, the first recorded use of “guillotine” in the English language occurred in the Annual Register of 1793, and it went thus: “At half past 12 the guillotine severed her head from her body.”  

Today, guillotine has assumed other semantic and metaphorical extensions. For instance, it is used in parliamentary jargon to mean “closure imposed on the debate of specific sections of a bill.” The word is also used as a verb. Another popular derivative of guillotine is guillotiner, which is the name for a person who operates the guillotine.

13. Hooligan/Hooliganism. This common word for an uncultured, rough, ill-bred, rude, and aggressive person is derived, according to some accounts, from the last name of an Irish family that was notorious for its rowdiness in 1890s Ireland. But an 1899 book titled Hooligan Nights by a Clarence Rook casts doubt on this etymology. The book is quoted to have averred that “hooligan” is derived from a certain Patrick Hooligan (also sometimes spelled Hoolihan), a notoriously boorish Irish man who made a living by stealing and throwing troublemakers out of bars for pay in London. That is probably why “Hooligan” (with a capital “H”) originally meant a gang of young people who fought in bars and destroyed property.

 I am inclined to believe Rook’s etymology both because of the date of the publication of his book (which came out at precisely the same time that the word emerged, meaning his account is likely to be fresh and faithful to the facts) and because the author associates the word with England rather than Ireland. The English association of the word is substantiated by ample corroboratory evidence.  For instance, the influential but now discontinued Daily Graphic newspaper, in an August 22, 1898 article, was quoted to have written the following: “The avalanche of brutality which, under the name of 'Hooliganism' ... has cast such a dire slur on the social records of South London.”

Superior evidence might well disprove Rook’s etymology, but what is not in dispute is that Hooligan (or Hoolihan) was/is a popular Irish last name and that someone or some people with that last name was/were notorious for noisy, disruptive, and disreputable behavior.

14. Luddite. We know this word in modern English as a person who is opposed to progress, especially technological progress; someone who is stuck in the past and dreads change. It is derived from “Ned Ludd, an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779 after being replaced by it.” After Ludd destroyed the machines that took his job (instead of learning to use them), groups of English workmen who were inspired by his example took on the destruction of machines as an organized activity. They thought machines were harbingers of unemployment.
Graphic representation of Ned Ludd destroying machines
To be continued

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