Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Leotards and other words named after people


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”. wellies_with_flowersPerhaps 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.

Jules contriving to look butch in a fetching miniskirt.

Jules contriving to look butch in a fetching miniskirt.

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.

Once I was happy, but now I’m forlorn
Like an old coat that is tattered and torn;leybourne
Left on this world to fret and to mourn,
Betrayed by a maid in her teens.

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.

leotard 3(1)

“I’m really quite pleased with my merguez and pickled lemons.”

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.


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.

7 thoughts on “Leotards and other words named after people

  1. Really interesting professor


  2. My favourite example is cardigan – such a cozy item to be named after a soldier. Sandwich, too, of course, though a bit unfair to name something after the man for whom it was intended, not the nameless cook who invented it.
    P.S. favourite schwa: I heard a teenage girl being interviewed on US television about her Olympics chances. She referred to herself as (I write it phonetically) “gymnist and Baptist”. Brilliant.


    • Thanks, Margaret. As regards the unnamed sandwich creator, it makes me think of “It’s the same the whole world over,|It’s the poor what gets the blame,| It’s the rich what gets the pleasure,| Isn’t it a blooming shame?” (She was Poor but she was Honest). Garmentwise, what about Raglan sleeves? Thanks for the schwa example. I remember how Blair was slated for using schwas all over the place, but can’t now think of a word he typically schwaed.


    • Thanks, Margaret. The anonymous creator of sandwiches makes me think of that old song “It’s the same the whole world over,| It’s the poor what gets the blame,| It’s the rich what gets the pleasure,| Isn’t it a blooming shame?” (She was poor but she was honest). Garmentwise, one of my favourites is Raglan sleeves (partly because of the magnificent Raglan Castle, which belonged to the family of which Lord Raglan was a scion). Thanks for your schwa malfunction. Over here, Tony Blair was slagged off for schwaing certain words, but I can’t now think of one. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog, and do, please, recommend it to any fellow logophiles. Kind regards, J.


  3. Jeremy, really interesting. In Spanish the word is “leotardo”, but it refers to wool leotards, mainly worn by young kids in winter.




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