Personal words

One of the most charming category of words in any language is that of eponyms, nouns taken from the names of actual people (or places), when this origin is completely forgotten (not like euclidean…) Two favorites in French are

    Poubelle (garbage container), from the name of the prefect Poubelle, who apparently made the use of such an implement mandatory in 1884;
    Silhouette (silhouette), from a French finance minister of the middle 18th Century; here the etymology claims that the French people disliked his economy politics and attributed the name to drawings done equally economically… This word is even more remarkable in that it is now common in at least three languages (in English but also in German according to my dictionary). Are there others?

I’ve just learnt of a new one, a word I’ve used many times without ever wondering where it came from…

    Barème: this may roughly be translated as “scale” or ‘table”; it’s commonly used in French for the distribution of points in an exam (e.g., four points for the first exercise, six for the second, and ten for the last problème). The name is from François Barrême (note the change of spelling; I’m using the Grand Robert as dictionary), a now obscure French mathematician from the late 17th century, who was once called ce fameux arithméticien (“this famous arithmetician”) for his works Tarifs et Comptes faits du grand commerce and Livre des comptes faits — see here; these books seem to have been simply conversion tables between units of measurements and money systems of various countries and provinces.

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Kowalski

I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

7 thoughts on “Personal words”

  1. Silhouette was also adopted in Spanish as silueta. I knew the word came to Spanish from French but didn’t know the origin of the French word: it’s very interesting!

  2. “Silhouette (silhouette) . . . This word is even more remarkable in that it is now common in at least three languages (in English but also in German according to my dictionary). Are there others? ”

    Also in Russian: силуэт.

  3. Persian has borrowed quite a few words from French, including “Barème” which is also used in the same sense in schools. I did not know neither about the French connection, nor the etymology. Thanks!

  4. Salut!

    Silhouette is used (and usually understood, I guess…) in Italian, but it is still perceived as a French word, witness the fact that we haven’t tinkered with its orthography yet. It appears in dictionaries though, so it counts.

    A small quibble with the definition of eponym: why do you also require the condition that the origin of the name be forgotten? (Or, more likely, have I just mis-parsed your first sentence?)

  5. You’re right that the formal meaning of eponym does not require that the origin be forgotten, but it’s rather less fun otherwise, I think…

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