What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the 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 British Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

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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.

derrick – Not a misspelling of the Christian name Derek, but a word for a type of crane with a movable pivoted arm for moving heavy weights, especially on a ship (see the image below); and, perhaps more commonly these days, the framework over an oil well or similar boring, holding the drilling machinery.


This seemingly innocent, mechanical word conceals a rather grisly story, for derrick was originally a nickname for a hangman, and not just any old hangman. The man whose surname was Der(r)ick served under the Elizabethan magnifico Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, who was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.


At the siege of Cadiz, Der(r)ick committed rape and was sentenced to death, but was pardoned by the earl when he agreed to become the hangman at Tyburn, the place of execution of criminals (not far from present-day Marble Arch in London). He is said to have invented a more advanced and reliable method of hanging that involved a beam and pulleys, and the word for it was then applied by analogy to similarly constructed cranes. This eponym therefore displays a semantic shift, unlike many others, whose referent stays the same.

A historical irony is that Der(r)ick ended up executing his own saviour, the Earl of Essex. The first citation for derrick in the OED is dated circa 1600 and is from a lengthy “lamentable ditty” – a ballad – bewailing the execution of the earl, on 25 February, 1601, for treason . (However, the version that I have been able to access online wrongly dates his execution to 1603.)

Sweet Englands pride is gone,
Which makes her sigh and groan,
Evermore still,
He did her fame advance in Ireland Spain and France,
And by a sad mischance,
Is from us tane. [taken]

Derick, thou know’st at Cales I sav’d
Thy life lost for a rape there done,
As thou thyself can’st testifie,
Thine own hand three and twenty hung,
But now thou seest my self is come
By chance into thy hands I light,
Strike out thy blow that I may know
Thou ever loved at his good night.

But to Christ who for my sins did dye,
Trickling with salt tears in his sight
Spreading my arms to God on high,
Lord Jesus receive my soul this night.


The 2nd Earl of Essex; miniature attrib. to Nicolas Hilliard.

Apparently, it took three blows to sever his head – well, he was well known for his brass neck – and when the Queen was informed, she momentarily stopped playing the virginals, and then played on.


  1. Describing Kelvin as British is plainly not wrong in that he was an establishment figure in Britain and was raised in Scotland. However, he was born in Ireland and interestingly, like many of his generation of Northern Irish Non-Conformists, there was a real ambivalence about his background. It is well-known that his father, as a twelve year old boy, visited the camp of the United Irish rebels at Ballynahinch, along with many local people who willingly brought supplies to ‘their’ troops in the fight against the British.


  2. Would you suggest I describe him as Irish? My brother was born in Wales, but I could hardly describe him as Welsh (my mother’s family are all Welsh, and I consider myself half-Welsh, not to mention a quarter-Scottish). It is always a difficult area to negotiate. He spent the first nine years of his life in Belfast, right enough. So, does that make him Irish, or Nothern Irish, or what? I really don’t want to get involved in any – unwitting – contention. I thought ‘British’ covered a multitude of sins, but perhaps it doesn’t.


  3. Not really, though it’s geographically accurate! I know, it’s very complex and perhaps avoiding the issue by just saying Belfast-born might be better! People here are more than used to fudging issues! We do it all the time. As I say, British isn’t wrong – it’s probably how he would have defined himself, though I don’t know enough about him to know what his attitude to his family’s republican past was – and many people in N. Ireland prefer to talk about the Six Counties as Britain and Britain as ‘the British mainland’ – a term which I hate. Northern Irish is strange because N. Ireland didn’t exist as an entity in his lifetime. Perhaps northern Irish? Ulster-born would also be acceptable – it’s only contentious when Ulster excludes Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal and that’s not applicable here. Just try to avoid any references to a certain city on the Foyle … That’s where it gets really complicated! 🙂


  4. I suppose questions about how appropriate the term British is could also be applied to more modern contexts where notions of national identity are in flux. For example, is Nicola Sturgeon a British politician in the same way as Michael Gove, even though both of them are Scottish? I know geographically, both of them are British, but as Nicola Sturgeon is devoted to breaking up the United Kingdom, it seems churlish to describe her as anything other than a Scottish politician. Just a thought …. 🙂


  5. Or perhaps we should describe Michael Gove as a collaborator in the subordination of Scottish (and welsh) interests to English ones? After all, claiming sturgeon is not a British politician is precisely as silly as claiming Gove is a traitor to his nation (Scotland) – neither makes any sense at all.
    As for kelvin, he was at birth and throughout his life a citizen of the United Kingdom, and hat’s generally what Brtish meant then and still means now. If I can be both Scottish and British he could be both Irish and British.


    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your comment. I have already been berated for calling Lord Kelvin British, which, as you say, he no doubt was. I suspect he would have thought of himself as both Irish and British, just as I consider myself both Welsh, Scottish, Klingon and British. The whole topic is literally [sic] a minefield. One would have to read any statements he made on the matter to know what he thought, but as he lived most of his life in Scotland, he might as well be called Scottish rather than Irish. So, British really covers it. I think nationalities should be abolished, in any case, but meanwhile we have to live with it …


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