Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Paparazzi 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”. 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.


Phwoooar! (That’s enough!–Ed.)


paparazzo – a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities to take and then sell photographs of them. It may be a bit of a surprise that this word is an eponym; as in the case of knickers, the character who gave us the name is fictional. In Italian film director Federico Fellini’s classic 1959 La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the surname of a photographer who works with gossip columnist Marcello Mastroianni. The character is based on a real-life Roman celeb-snapper of the era, a certain Tazio Secchiaroli.

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As with some other Italian words (graffiti, spaghetti, panini), English does not always respect (and why should it?) the singular/plural distinction of the original Italian: 1 paparazzo, 2 paparazzi. Because paparazzi generally hunt in packs, the plural form paparazzi is much more frequent than the singular in any case, and is quite often used as a singular, instead of the technically “correct” paparazzo.

The Scottish guy I met who moved here to be a paparazzi has moved elsewhere.
Montreal Mirror, 2004.

He published the photographs – taken by a paparazzo who gatecrashed the wedding – to defend the economic interests of his magazine, he added.
Yorkshire Post Today, 2003

 Occasionally paparazzi seems to be interpreted, as far as I can judge, as a collective noun, and accordingly is used with the singular verb agreement obligatory for collective nouns in American English:

I was actually thinking that Michelle Obama will be the one that the paparazzi takes the most pictures of, you know, detailing, you know, her every outfit.
CNN (transcripts), 2008.






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.

4 thoughts on “Paparazzi and other words named after people

  1. I have frequently asked for a panino in cafés and people always stare blankly and say “Oh, you mean a panini.” Serves me right for being a pedant or too far along the spectrum, I suppose. English speakers are pretty hopeless when it comes to treating loanwords with respect. I mean, how long have people been saying choritso? I’m fairly relaxed and non-prescriptive about matters of language but I really hate the pronunciation choritso because it’s so pretentious. If they just pronounced the -zo part like the -zo of zoning it wouldn’t bother me …


  2. Dear partner in crime, you are undoubtedly a PE-duhnt, lol. I would never say ‘a panino’. I hate choritso, too. But those who say it that way think they are being correct; it just so happens that they are wrong. My alter ego, Dr F, in his splendid volume, opines: ‘If you wish to make an impression by mimicking the pronunciation of the language from which a word comes, it is wise to make sure you choose the right language’. He is, I find, unnecessarily sarcastic at times. Yours in pedantry, J.

    Btw, I looked high and low (hi and lo?) for thoughts on the superlative issue you raised yonks ago, but could find nothing. And it is not in F. However, I am sure I have come across the issue before, but can’t for the life of remember where. I really do think, at this stage, that it was at school.

    Kindest regards, as ever.


  3. I too hate choritso. I don’t like choriθo much better, althought it is one of the correct pronunciations and the one most often taught to English speakers learning Spanish. I prefer the choriso I learnt to say in Spain (the pronunciation used, I am told, by more than 90% of native Spanish speakers world-wide). Pronouncing Spanish words correctly can cause problems in England – a few times I’ve even had problems with cortado (pronounced cortaðo) – I guess that just as with chorizo people assume an Italian pronunciatin instead of a Spanish one.
    I can’t say I would never say panino, because sometimes I speak Italin to Italians; but I hate panino in English, and would always say panini – borrowed words in English often take on different accidence from the originals. However I draw the line at paninis as a plural, that seems almost as ridiculous (albeit unintentionally) as those famous Motores Bi for defence against which Alfred Godley prayed.


    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. You may well be right to suggest, as I understand you to be doing, that people will give Spanish words an Italian pronunciation, by default. That would explain the – to me – bizarre pronunciation of macho as ‘makko’. As regards ‘paninis’ – if the singular is ‘panini’ why not a regular English plural ‘paninis’? On the other hand, it could be an invariable, like ‘grouse’, etc. Which also seems to be the fate of ‘criteria’ these days, i.e. plural and singular.


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