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 gaves 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.

Bloody Mary


My favourite cocktail

If that image doesn’t make you thirsty, you’re a better person than me.

When I used to travel and be stuck in airport lounges in the evening, a Bloody Mary was often a little pick-me-up before the tedium of the flight home. Now I make them at home – very occasionally, you understand –, which is what set me thinking about the name.

Who is this Mary, anyway?

Frankly, it had never occurred to me that the Bloody Mary in question could be anyone other than Queen Mary (Tudor), whose brief reign (1553-1558) was proverbially “bloody”. During her campaign to re-establish Catholicism in Britain, some 300 people were burnt at the stake for heresy (including a few already buried who were dug up.)


(In fairness, in the reigns of her father, brother, and sister, human barbecuing was not unknown, but only on a minor scale in comparison.)

However, such is Mary’s notoriety that her sobriquet is translated into other languages, e.g. Marie la sanglante, Maria la Sangrienta, Marie die Blutige.

Wikipedia lists other pretenders to the name, including the silent-era Hollywood actress Mary Pickford and a waitress called Mary, but itsh true originsh sheem to be losht in the alcohol-shrouded mishtsh of time. Sho, I shall shtick with royalty.

If you are enjoying this blog, and finding it useful or interesting, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging semi-(ir)regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

When was Queen Mary first called “bloody”?

The first citation (1657) for “bloody Mary” in the OED comes from well after her reign. It appears in an Epistle Perambulation by the possibly somewhat demented millenarian John Rogers (b. 1627) to the curiously modern-sounding Time of End, by J. Canne, a non-conformist cleric.

We see it [sc. government] and feel it every day to be of the Beast, and more bruitish then those that have gone before; bloody Mary her self abhorring to make it Treason for words as they have done.

The OED also shows that “bloody Queen Mary” had earlier been used by the same John Rogers in 1654, in Sagrir or Doomes-Day Drawing Nigh:

Which Tyranny and accursed cruelty of theirs is condemned by bloody Queen Mary her selfe.

(The claim in the Wikipedia entry on the drink that it was in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (“Book of Martyrs”) that Mary was first called “bloody” cannot be true, otherwise the recently revised OED entries mentioned above would have mentioned it. A search of the online editions, however, does reveal, for example, references to “the bloudy regiment of Queene Mary” (regiment here = rule, government, or reign).

The OED entry for bloody has no fewer than 15 senses (excluding its use as an intensifier) and bloody Queen Mary is cited bloodthirstily under meaning 4: “Of a person or animal: addicted to bloodshed, bloodthirsty; cruel”, a use that goes back to Old English.

What about the drink, then?

The OED’s first citation is from the N.Y. Herald Tribune for 2 December 1939. At that stage it seems to have been a simple half-and-half mixture:

George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up which is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.

If the OED is anything to go by, the drink took some time to cross the Atlantic – or at least to appear in print this side of the pond:

Those two…are eating raw steaks and drinking Bloody Marys.

Punch,  15 Aug., 1956.

Since the early days, Bloody Marys have become more complicated. The OED defines the drink as “A cocktail containing vodka, tomato juice, and other (usually pungent) flavourings, typically served with a celery stalk or similar garnish.”

Nowadays there are trillions of variations, with different alcohols, such as Tequila, and all manner of flavourings and garnish, from horseradish to olives, wasabi to bacon strips (personally, yuck!), oysters to clam broth.

Forgive me, but I like to keep mine simple at home: vodka, good tomato juice, celery salt, a teeny pinch of garlic salt, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, a splosh of dry sherry, ice, and a slice of lime. (I’m too mean to buy the obligatory celery just for a drink!)

Mmmm, perhaps not that simple after all.

A Virgin Mary…

is the punningly alcohol-free version. The OED first records it from 1976, labels it “chiefly US”, and defines it as merely a glass of tomato juice. Later citations, however, show clearly that it’s a detoxicated Bloody Mary:

A waitress approached the table. ‘A Virgin Mary… A Bloody Mary without the vodka.’

Five Roads to Death, J. Philips, 1977.

This quote from a title published in England in London in 1981 conveys a certain British snobbishness about the name:

Crombie ordered himself a straight tomato juice with…Worcester. The Colonel did not, Bognor noted with approval, refer to the drink as ‘a Virgin Mary’.

Murder at Moose Jaw, T. Heald, 1981

Btw, the plural of Mary is Marys, not Maries.

It’s a standard spelling convention that if a common noun ends in a consonant plus the letter -y, you pluralize it like berry -> berries. However, most grammars agree that proper nouns are an exception; you just tack on an -s for the plural. For that reason, you write the Kennedys, the two Germanys, he has won six Tonys, etc. (although the alternative spellings Kennedies, Germanies, etc. are also used.)

[In Scottish history, the four Marys are the girls of noble birth (the Marys Beaton, Seaton, Fleming, and Livingston) who accompanied Mary, Queen of Scots, to France in 1548.]

Bloody Mary has been vilified down the centuries. The Horrible Histories/Kate Bush parody redeems Mary from her ghastly reputation with tongue-in-cheek humour.



  1. I really like Horrible Histories. My favourite one was of the fearless Vikings chatting among themselves. It went something along the lines of “Yes, the whole thing comes in a kind of box … and there is a magic key called The Key of Allen …”


      1. Yes, it’s good fun. It’s really my young nephews who like HH, though it’s one of those shows that appeals to all ages. They’re also the reason I can play the theme music to In The Night Garden on several instruments!


  2. Blimey! On how many instruments? Is there no end to your talents?

    Btw, I wanted to ask you something so trivial I hardly dare ask. It concerns ‘Catriona’ in ‘English’. I was taught it was Ka-trEE-na by our English dominie at school. Consequently, when I hear Beeb announcers introducing Ka-tree-OH-na, I bridle. But looking up the Irish Gaelic version I find Caitríona, with an accent. Which leads me to ask a) how would it be pronounced in Irish and b) how would an Irishman (i.e. person, but Irishman will do) pronounce it in English. Hope you can help, or I won’t be able to sleep.


  3. Apologies for the sleepless night there! I have only just seen this. Don’t get me started on the mangling of Irish names. Kate-lynn instead of Caitlín being a particular pet hate of mine. In Irish it’s either as your dominie said, ka-trEE-na, or indeed ka-chrEE-na with the first part like English catch. (We like our palatals in the north.) Without the accent on the í it would be a short indeterminate vowel, ka-chru-na. Some people also put a little schwa after the ee part, almost like the name Ian – kat-rIan-a. To me, this seems wrong, as I have always regarded the difference between í and ia as phonemic in Irish (dian – harsh, díon – roof for example) but it seems to be a common mistake (if it is a mistake), even among some native speakers. As for Kat-ree-OH-na, it is the bastard love-child of Catherine and Fiona and should be avoided by all self-respecting Milesians.

    As for the instruments, it’s three, all of them very badly. If you lived next door to me you would really know what a sleepless night is like …


  4. By pure coincidence, I was half listening to the 5 o’clock news programme on Raidió na Gaeltachta and the name Ríona Ní Mhurchú was mentioned. I would say it REENA (QUB is called Ollscoil na Ríona/Banríona in Irish and it’s always REENA) but to the speaker it was Fiona with an R. Maybe Ríona pronounces it like that herself! Who knows?


  5. I would probably say something like “Ní taise domsa é!” which literally means something like “It is not softer for me” and non-figuratively means ‘”I’m no better off than you”. Or ‘Beidh, agus mise!” You will be and so will I!


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