Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Review: Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano

I've always liked word origin stories, especially when they have interesting tales behind them. And what could be more interesting than eponymous words, those words that were created based on the name of a person. These sorts of words are most obvious in areas like science (will someone name a flower or pleasant smell or star or something like that after me, please?), literature, and when someone actually creates a new tangible something that they can name after themselves. But Marciano isn't entirely concerned with these words in his Anonyponymous; he's interested in the words we use frequently but have long since forgotten the person for whom they were named. Anonymous and eponymous both.

This is a slight book, very casual in tone, and set up like a dictionary. The words (and people) chosen for inclusion are sometimes indeed what the title suggests but other times they are more common than the author seems to think (or maybe I'm just smarter than the average bear, but I don't really believe that). I was interested to learn about some of the people behind dog breeds (Jack Russell and Dobermann), Candido Jacuzzi and the reason behind his invention, how a man who neglected to brand his cattle inspired the word maverick, that silhouette came about as tribute (?) to a French official who was incredibly cheap, that syphilis was named for a shepherd but not for the reason you think, and many more. Etymology geeks like me will enjoy this although I'd caution that it is best read in small snippets rather than all at once. One or two entries might not be entirely true but it is mostly well-researched if very superficial and brief. It is a breezy, occasionally funny book of the sort of random trivia with which I cheerfully stuff my brain. If this sounds like you too, enjoy!

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