Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Biros, bics, and other words named after people

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birome

What’s in a name?

We all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the first Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.


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bic-ball

biro – the Hungarian inventor László József Bíró wanted to develop a pen with ink that dried quicker than that from a fountain pen, and, after earlier experiments, in 1938 patented his idea for what is known in British English as a biro (elsewhere ballpoint pen is the standard).

As a Jew, he was forced to flee Hungary after the Nazi occupation, and went to Argentina, where a biro is still known, in honour of him, as a birome. Elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world it is known as un bolígrafo, because of the ball (bola) that controls the flow of ink (bolígrafo is also shortened to boli). Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for production in France for the company which became BIC, and that is the name that biros are known by in French—in other words, they are also a French eponym.

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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