Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Other authorsJohn Bemelmans Marciano (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 2009



An encyclopedia of linguistic biographies: the witty, illustrated stories of the Earl of Sandwich, Charles Boycott, and other historical figures better known as words than people. Eponymous, adj. Giving one's name to a person, place, or thing. Anonymous, adj. Anonymous. Anonyponymous, adj. Anonymous and eponymous. The Earl of Sandwich, fond of salted beef and paired slices of toast, found a novel way to eat them all together. Etienne de Silhouette, a former French finance minister, was so notoriously cheap that his name became a byword for chintzy practices--such as substituting a darkened outline for a proper painted portrait. Both bequeathed their names to the language, but neither man is remembered. In this clever and funny book, John Bemelmans Marciano illuminates the lives of these anonyponymous persons. A kind of encyclopedia of linguistic biographies, the book is arranged alphabetically, giving the stories of everyone from Abu "algorithm" Al-Khwarizmi to Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Along with them you'll find the likes of Harry Shrapnel, Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, and many other people whose vernacular legacies have long outlived their memory. Accented by amusing line portraits and short etymological essays on subjects like "superhero eponyms," Anonyponymous is both a compendium of trivia and a window into the fascinating world of etymology. Carefully curated and unfailingly witty, this book is both a fantastic gift for language lovers and a true pleasure to read.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member antiquary
This book is a good mix of genuine scholarship and light humor, rather on the lines of Will Cuppy (and a good deal better than Richard Armour). The entries cover the lives of people who are largely forgotten except for the words linked to their names. Most of the words were ones I happen to be familiar with as an English teacher (and long-time dictionary browser) but I thought Marciano was judicious in consdering some doubtful cases such as "hooker" and "crapper." (When I first heard the "crapper" story from a London tourist guide many years ago, I thought it was joke, but apparently not. )
The text is enhanced by clever line drawings (again, very much in the tradition of, say, the illustrations for The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody)
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LibraryThing member carlym
Anonyponymous is a dictionary-style book that provides a history of words that are not generally known to have come from a person's name. Most readers will probably know the origins of some of the words, such as gerrymander or sadism, but the origins of many of the words were unfamiliar to me. The stories behind these words are interesting and humorous. I generally find dictionary-style books difficult to read straight through, but this book reads more like a collection of very short essays. I doubt, though, that I would have purchased this book for myself, in part because it is quite short. It seems like it would be better as a gift--it's funny and has an attractive cover and nice illustrations.
(Side note: Another reviewer has stated that the book contains factual errors in a few entries, but the examples provided are not really errors but differences in interpretation. There is also a reference to "bant" on page 135.)
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LibraryThing member szarka
The "anonyponymous" words of the book's title are those that once referenced a person, real or fictional, but whose origin is no longer common knowledge. Of course, this is a matter of degree: I knew that "sandwich", "mentor", and "guillotine" began their life as names, but "tawdry", "cardigan", and "paparazzi" surprised me. I expect most readers will find similar surprises awaiting them inside this little book, and that's part of what makes it so delightful. And, obscure or not, Bemelmans Marciano supplies colorful details that makes the words come alive. I can't imagine anyone worth knowing who wouldn't find the topic interesting, so I'm sorry I didn't get around to reading this book before completing my holiday shopping.

Having said that, many of the good bits are hidden in endnotes, making the process of reading Anonyponymous a frustrating one. I found myself flipping back and forth with nearly every page! And, in nearly every case, the notes were material that should have been incorporated into the main body of the text. Worse, the proper citations that ought to have appeared at the end of the book are absent. Given that the author mostly glossed over any controversy about the words' origins, both these shortcomings are regrettable. Finally, many of the 152 pages in this little book are taken up by illustrations that add nothing to the text, and the space could have been more profitably used by an index.

In short, Anonyponymous is an entertaining trifle, but nothing more. I do recommend it as (in the author's words) "crapper material", but look elsewhere if you want a scholarly treatment of the subject.
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LibraryThing member Osbaldistone
A fun, brief, light read for anyone who enjoys word origins. These are specifically limited to words originating from people's names (real or fictional), and each essay explores the story of the person as much or more than the story of the word.

A quick read, or a nice book to have around to dip into here and there, Marciano keeps it on the light side, with just enough humor thrown in. Personally, I'd have liked for this book to contain twice as many entries, and, whenever possible, even more about the "forgotton people behind everyday words".

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LibraryThing member Larxol
This is a slight book, with short, stand-alone chapters, putting it squarely in the “bathroom book” genre. The author’s premise is to explain a collection of words that are eponyms , that is, words taken from names, either real or fictional, but so common that the actual owners of the names are forgotten, usually along with their attendant capitalization. A lot of the etymologies will be familiar to most readers -- sandwich, peeler -- others were new to me --procrustean, janitor.

Marciano has a breezy and straightforward style – several of his previous books were for children – and the book has no pretensions beyond being entertaining to dip into. Put it in the guest bedroom when you’re through with it.
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LibraryThing member moibibliomaniac
Anonyponymous. I looked this word up in my OED's and in my Samuel Johnson dictionaries. It's not there. The author made up the word to identify "the forgotten people behind everyday words."

These people had words named after them, words called eponyms. Some of these people I never heard of: Dr. Guillotin, Candido Jacuzzi, Apollo Syphilus, and Allesandro Volta. Yet you and I are familiar with their eponyms.

I enjoyed reading this book. I think it will provide amusement to the average reader as well as provide a little bit of trivia behind some of the words in our vocabularies.

The only problem I see with the book is that its price might send it to the remainder table rather quickly. It will be a tough sell at $18.00.
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LibraryThing member koboldninja.5
A self professed bathroom read, this book has some interesting and entirely un-useful ecclectica. It is very approachable, may provide a conversation or two, and certainly is a study in the roots of words, phrases and some of those that go out of style, but not something I would say is a must-read.
LibraryThing member metamariposa
Anonyponymous is not a deep book or a particularly instructive book or the best book of its kind, but I have enjoyed its brief histories of words. This selection offers a look into the process of names becoming words divorced from their original referents (such as Spoonerisms). While I was previously acquainted with several of the entries' histories, I enjoyed learning of new ones (e.g. bloomers and leotards). This book would be an excellent gift for word nerds and makes great bathroom reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member wrmjr66
I enjoyed reading this witty compendium of the forgotten people behind some of the words in our language. Marciano writes brief, entertaining entries on the people behind the words and how their names became words to begin with. He uses a variety of contemporary allusions to add interest and humor to his entries. It's one of those books that one can either finish quickly, or nibble at when free time appears, such as waiting in line or using the bathroom. If you are looking for scholarship, this isn't the book you want--that much should be obvious. But if you want a light, humorously intellectual read, this is a good book to consider.… (more)
LibraryThing member melsmarsh
"Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words" is written by John Marciano who is perhaps best known for being an author in the children's series "Madeline". This, his latest work, is a very easy to read book, most suitable for "word geeks," literature lovers, linguistics students, students of the history of the English language, or anyone who is a fan of trivia.

This book covers the origin of several words that are commonplace in the English language, but originally owed their start to being part of someone's name. Most people are aware of the Earl of Sandwich and his relationship to the food that bears his name, Mr. Crapper and his relationship to the toilet, and the word sadism as coming from Marquis de Sade. What about the pair of pants you are wearing? The word "pants" (originally Pantaloon) were named for Pantaleon, a physician. Shrapnel was named for Henry Shrapnel, the inventor of an exploding cannonball. You can read more about the origin of these words and many more by reading this book.

"Anonyponymous" is an entertaining read, although rather short, and is about the perfect size as a "stocking stuffer" for the holiday season.
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LibraryThing member BMK
As a lover of both the English language and mysteries (and, let's face it, the two go hand in hand), I was really looking forward to this book. The entries are short and, generally, entertaining as are the illustrations, both by John Bemelmans Marciano.

As a self-confessed pedant, I found a couple of problems with the book. First, the entry on cereal. The linking of Kellogg to the origin of cereal seems a little thin. Since "cereal" was being used to refer to edible grains since at least 1832 (per the OED), extending the name to something formed of cereal would seem a natural. The boosterism of flooding one's lower intestine with large amounts of water, let alone yogurt, also seems oddly misplaced, particularly as neither have been found by medical science to be of any particular benefit except in cases of impaction. It was a rather odd thing to find in a book dealing with etymology.

Second was the entry on Thomas Crapper. The author states, "It does seem fair to question, however, just how a plumbing-fixtures manufacturer came by so serendipitous a surname." There really is no question. Thomas Crapper was baptized Sept. 28, 1836 with that name. No mystery there.

Thirdly was hooligan. The author states that the word comes from a London bouncer named Patrick Hooligan. The OED states, "[Origin unascertained. The word first appears in print in daily newspaper police- court reports in the summer of 1898. Several accounts of the rise of the word, purporting to be based on first-hand evidence, attribute it to a misunderstanding or perversion of Hooley or Hooley's gang, but no positive confirmation of this has been discovered. The name Hooligan figured in a music-hall song of the eighteen-nineties, which described the doings of a rowdy Irish family, and a comic Irish character of the name appeared in a series of adventures in Funny Folks.] "

There are a couple of similar sorts of entries and at least one editing error: on page 121, referring to "banting" (dieting), he says, "The verb, sadly, is obsolete today even in British English, though not quite obsolete all together. (see page 135)" There is no entry on "banting" on page 135. Take heart, Mr. Marciano, the word will never die as long as there are those of us who love Miss Marple. The word appears in at least one of the short stories from, "The Tuesday Club Murders".

All in all a fairly entertaining, but flawed book. The inaccuracies make me suspicious of all the entries; it's hard to really enjoy a book when you feel you have to double-check every entry just to be sure.

Edited to add: at $18 in hardcover for 144 pages not counting the footnotes (less than an hour's worth of reading), I'd say the book is over-priced.
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LibraryThing member dougstephens
This book is a light-hearted look at a collection of everyday words derived from people who have been (mostly) forgotten. Some are familiar such as the Earl of Sandwich and Thomas Crapper, but others were less well-known. This is not an academic work by any means. Instead, it is written at a high school level and the author does engage in some unnecessary scatological humor now and then. The text is 144 pages included a number of pages used for illustrations.… (more)
LibraryThing member 391
Anonyponymous is a short, quick read, perfect for those who love knowing those bizarre little facts and etymological origin stories. I like that it goes into all the different origin stories if there are competing theories, as well as distinguishing words that were popularized by a figure rather than introduced by them (see: Hookers). There's a surprisingly expansive amount of detail interwoven for such a brief read.… (more)
LibraryThing member keristars
If you're looking for a casual trivia book with brief anecdotes about the history of certain eponyms, this is a good one to try. That's pretty much exactly what it is, without a lot of depth to the entries. It's like a survey course to whet the appetite and introduce the topic, but without going into major detail about eponyms or etymology.

I picked it up at the library knowing this, as I was in the mood for something familiar and light, with a language bent. I came away with a sort of confused feeling, though. While the book did satisfy my expectations for it (and they weren't very high, I must say), there was something about Marciano's writing style that just didn't work for me. To sum it up, I think that it is trying too hard to be modern and slangy. It was like reading a series of Wikipedia pages that had been edited by some Something Awful goons, and then halfheartedly polished by an editor into something that wouldn't be too incomprehensible for the average person who isn't intimately familiar with internet culture.

There are a lot of jokes in the definitions of the words before the anecdotes that reminded me a bit of the Devil's Dictionary (or, at least, riffs on it), but they didn't really match the more serious tone the entries - except when those same entries had random bits of internet slang, such as "jumping the shark". There was also a casual tone that felt like it was struggling to refrain from cursing, except when a "sh*t" or "f*ck" escaped - a bit like a young person who regularly peppers their speech with "f*ck" trying to clean their language up while in a more formal setting.

I suppose, overall, the whole book came across as awkward to me, and it didn't really tread any new ground on the subject, either. I'd say rather than buying the book, one should just start from the Wikipedia page on eponyms and spend a few hours (days?) reading.

For what it's worth, I found the first appendix the most intriguing part of the book, and I would like to find one that explores the topic more thoroughly. These four pages talk about certain eponyms and their adoption (or lack thereof) in different languages.
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LibraryThing member napaxton
I rather enjoyed this, more than I thought I would. A light-hearted romp through many words named after people or places but which have lost that connection, like maverick or diesel (both of which were originally named after real people).

Certainly good filler reading for those little moments here and there during the day when you need a few minutes quick diversion!… (more)
LibraryThing member ThothJ
I never knew learning could be this fun! This book is a "hats off" to those people who gave us the words we use every day, but who have been utterly forgotten otherwise by time. I say that it is high time they start being remembered!
LibraryThing member ThothJ
I never knew learning could be this fun! This book is a "hats off" to those people who gave us the words we use every day, but who have been utterly forgotten otherwise by time. I say that it is high time they start being remembered!
LibraryThing member JNSelko
As a voracious verbivore, long-time logophile and an inveterate etymologist, I used to pick up any new word book I saw. As time went on however , I became less completist (more discerning) in my purchases, and there had to be a certain "something" about a book to catch my eye. Well, the very title of this book itself hooked me- Anonyponymous. What a great coinage!
Since I have a fair sized collection of etymology books, I have to admit that I was not expecting to acquire any really new information from this slim volume, but I was pleasantly surprised. The story of "to curry favor" was new to me, as were the tales of (among others) "procrustian", "yente", and "Ritzy".
Anonyponymous is definitely a nice starter book for those interested in our endlessly fascinating language, but it has enough gems in it to make it a worthwhile addition to any word lover's library.
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LibraryThing member Treuhaft
This book was a fun read. It is a far ride from the customary academic works of word origins and etymologies even if this excursion includes what some readers may feel are vulgar neighborhoods. Perfect fun for those who are interested in the brief trip through the fascinating history of characters who have been forgotten even though their names are referred to everyday.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dystopos
Marciano navigates well-traveled trivia here, but manages a fresh, brisk tour seasoned with personality and wit. A very enjoyable and all-too-brief read in the vein of Katherine Barber's weightier "Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs" or Charles E. Funk's classic "Thereby Hangs a Tale".

The twist here is that each entry, surprisingly or not, originates with the name of an individual. I was aware that Silhouette, Boycott and Guillotine were figures of history, but I was unaware of the personalities behind the jacuzzi, the gardenia, syphilis, quisling and paparazzi.

As with the Earl's sandwich, it's easy to digest this dashingly-illustrated small book in small bites of time. A section of notes provides insight into some sources and controversies. Sadly missing are a table of contents or an index as though most entries are alphabetized, the anecdotes and inserts cover a broader array of subjects.
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