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 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. In modern Greek, επώνυμο (eponimo) is the word for “surname”.
leotard – The word for this figure-hugging one-piece garment, made of stretchy materials and donned by ballet dancers for practice and other people doing various forms of exercise, is written without an accent. But if you add the acute accent, you get the name of its inventor, Jules Léotard, a remarkable French acrobat.
In 1859 – the same year that his compatriot Blondin crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope – he performed the world’s first aerial somersault and leapt from trapeze to trapeze. That provided the inspiration for the popular music-hall song That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Sadly, his career was short-lived: he died at the age of twenty-eight in 1870.
The narrator tells the story of his lost love.
The girl that I loved she was handsome;
I tried all I knew her to please
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As the man upon the trapeze.
He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze.
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please
And my love he purloined away.
Some further verses chronicle how she fell in love with the trapezist and then eloped with him, before …
Some months after this I went to the Hall;
Was greatly surprised to see on the wall
A bill in red letters, which did my heart gall,
That she was appearing with him.
He’d taught her gymnastics and dressed her in tights,
To help him live at his ease,
And made her assume a masculine name,
And now she goes on the trapeze.
She’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
You’d think her the man young man on the flying trapeze.
Her movements were graceful, all girls she could please,
And that was the end of my love.
Am I the only one who is puzzled by the hint of sapphism in the last verse? Or is the word “girls” used because to replace it with “men” would be far too saucy?
Anyway, this photo highlights the effect on Victorian sensibilities that Jules L. must have had when he chose not to wear his modesty-preserving miniskirt. “Wardrobe malfunction” hardly does it justice.
And here’s a sort of hillbilly version of the song, from the 1934 film It Happened one Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (“together for the first time”!). Note the American pronunciation of “trapeze” at the beginning, with a full /a/ not a schwa.