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Harvey Wallbangers and Tam O'Shanters
A Book of Eponyms
By Martin Hannan
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Martin Hannan
All rights reserved.
HEROES AND VILLAINS – DEFINING QUALITIES
These eponyms are qualitative adjectives which describe attributes or features supposedly resembling those of the person, or that person's creations, whose name thus became eponymous.
When the word Alexandrine is used in a historical context, it refers to the era and perhaps the conquered territories of King Alexander the Great of Macedon (356–323BC). In grammar, however, 'alexandrine' has a specific use, referring to a form of verse that first emerged in France in the early Middle Ages. It is basically a line of 12 syllables with the stress on both the sixth and last syllables, and was the major verse form before William Shakespeare and others popularised the iambic pentameter.
Most scholars think Alexandrine derives from the 12th-century French chivalric romances about King Alexander the Great who famously conquered most of the known world before dying at the age of 32. These long works, some of which are attributed to the poet Alexander of Paris or Bernay, are rendered in the verse form that was later named 'alexandrine' in acknowledgement of their influence.
Most eponyms take their root from a real person or someone in fiction, but very few derive from a person who may have been a myth, but was certainly a legend. Did King Arthur live? Do we care? He is such a hero that we want him to have lived.
When we use the word Arthurian, it is almost always in conjunction with the word legend and, as such, King Arthur might well have been a real person around whom much imaginative folklore has been weaved.
That a 'King of the Britons' of this name – and we cannot even be sure that Arthur was his name – existed on the west coast of Great Britain sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries is generally accepted by most people, except a lot of pesky historians and archaeologists who insist there is no evidence for Arthur.
How dare they! The fact is we want to believe in Camelot, its king and his sword Excalibur, his wizard Merlin and his queen Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table. In Britain, we need an explanation why the Dark Ages of conquest and battle fell upon the whole island, and we need to believe there was a Camelot which represented a last stand of goodness against the incoming barbarism – or else why should we believe that Britain is ever going to return to that idyllic state?
The fact is that the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth probably invented most of the history of Arthur in his book Historia Regum Britannia in the 12th century. Even back then, his critics accused Geoffrey of making up most of the Arthurian tales, though they waited until after he died around 1155AD, as it was not the done thing to criticise a bishop of the Church. Invention or not, Geoffrey did us all a favour, not least because he added stories of Leir and Cymbeline which provided William Shakespeare with inspiration for his plays.
The Arthur stories grew apace after Geoffrey, with Lancelot and the Holy Grail being added by the French writer Chretien de Troyes, and then in came the Arthurian daddy of them all, Sir Thomas Malory, who penned Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th century. It all adds to the legend that we are not even sure who Malory was, but he gathered all the English and French stories into one volume which still stands as the key work of Arthurian literature. Since then there have been many more Arthurian stories, and film and television works abound, which is largely why we all understand what the eponym 'Arthurian' stands for – anything to do with Camelot and its King.
Though he was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, the first true Emperor of Rome is better known to posterity as Augustus (63BC–14AD). What is perhaps not always realised about a man who really did change the world is that he had different names at different times during his lifetime.
Known as Octavius as a boy, he took the name Gaius Julius Caesar in honour of the great-uncle who had adopted him – history (and Shakespeare) refer to him at that time as Octavian or Octavianus. Only after he became Emperor was he awarded the name Augustus – 'Revered One' – by the Senate and, confusingly, he was also known as Caesar and referred to in Greek as Sebastos.
He finished as Augustus, however, having avenged the murder of his great-uncle Julius by beating Brutus and Cassius in battle, seeing off his former co-leaders Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, and reigning over Rome for 40 years in an era of relative peace and prosperity that was known as the Pax Romana. His many other reforms of the State and general control of the Republic boosted Rome's fortunes and saw him awarded divine status after his death. The Roman Empire he effectively founded lasted for centuries, but was never perhaps so glorious than in the original Augustan age.
Though the word is not as common as before, we still use 'Augustan' to refer to the best of something, the height of quality or the inspirational foundation, as in the Augustan age of English literature in the early 18th century.
(See Dionysian below)
The trouble with history is that it is written by historians, sometimes long after events have taken place. People lose context, and fail to understand why something happened; for instance, why a word was coined at the time.
'Baroque' is usually taken to derive from a Portuguese word 'barocco' which supposedly meant a misshapen pearl. The connection was presumably because Baroque Christian art was so gross and over the top – out of proportion – in response to the Reformation. The Italian for Baroque is indeed 'barocco'.
There is an alternative derivation. Federico Barocci (1526–1612) is curiously not bracketed with the very greatest of Italian artists, but it is often forgotten that his prolific work was hugely influential in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There is a noticeable difference between his early work and his later output, after he had become a lay monk and eagerly embraced the Roman Church's struggle against the forces of the Protestant Reformation. From being an almost mainstream Renaissance artist, he became a purveyor of massively colourful art and a master painter at that period in Italy, especially Rome, which is the acknowledged forerunner of Baroque. Peter Paul Rubens was just one of the many artists influenced by Barocci.
The point is that Barocci was not his real name. He was born Federico Fiori da Urbino and was given the nickname Il Barocco, a two-wheeled cart drawn by oxen – why, we do not know – from which came Barocci. Given his fame at the start of the period we now call Baroque, is it not more likely that those he influenced acknowledged the inspiration of Il Barocco?
We call an old, set-in-his-ways fuddy-duddy a 'blimpish' character, and this is a possibly unique example of an eponym that was adopted from an existing name and then reinvented to mean something else entirely.
A blimp is a non-rigid airship, the term first being used in 1915 and supposedly deriving from the noise that was made when someone pushed a finger into the dirigible's surface. Try poking a balloon and you'll see why.
When cartoonist David Low of the Evening Standard was looking to satirise the British officer class of the 1930s, he created Colonel Blimp, borrowing the name from the 'gasbag' airship. Blimp was old-fashioned, fiercely reactionary and, as Low himself said, 'a symbol of stupidity'.
The wonderful British film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a 'blimp' slightly more sympathetic, but Winston Churchill still wanted it banned because it showed older officers as frankly doddery. The public lapped it up, however, as they loved Low's cartoons, and 'blimpish' took root and is used to describe someone who is out of touch.
(n. Boswell, Boswellism)
Dr Samuel Johnson's obsessive admirer James Boswell (1740–95) has given us an eponym which is so apt for our age of bloggers who never miss a detail of the lives of celebrities.
It is thanks to this Scottish lawyer and minor aristocrat, the 9th Laird of Auchinleck, that we know so much about Dr Samuel Johnson whose dictionary is the forerunner of all books which try to delineate the English language – including this one.
His early diaries of his travels in Europe were notable in themselves, but his life of Johnson (1791) and the brilliant journal, Tour to the Hebrides, saw Boswell at his very best, the book being a template for both travel writing and celebrity gossip memoirs. Despite the fact that, by his own admission, he shipped an ocean of booze in his life, Boswell remained a fastidious diarist and wrote of his encounters with famous people and prostitutes alike.
'Boswellian' has thus come to describe an obsessive chronicler and fan of another, when it could just as easily mean excessively lustful or practically alcoholic.
The most common meaning of Byronic is to describe somebody that is both heroic and flawed, much like Lord George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) himself.
The 6th Baron Byron could hardly have been anything other than 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', as he was famously described by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb, not least because he was the son of 'Mad Jack' Byron, was born with his right foot clubbed, and endured an 'interesting' childhood which involved seduction by his governess at the age of ten, the same age as he inherited the barony of Byron.
He became the first and, some would say, greatest of the Romantic poets who bestrode English literature in the early 19th century. Many decades before an anti-hero was even defined, Byron created a 'hero' very much based on himself in Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage, his semi-autobiographical narrative poem that took him six years to complete. In the poem, Byron depicted himself as clever, arrogant, sexually louche, cynical, moody but always brave. Similar tragic and tortured heroes appeared in several more of Byron's poems and his play Manfred. Byronic heroes littered novels and poems from then on, and their traits can still be seen in our modern anti-hero.
There is no doubting Byron's personal courage, as he embraced unpopular political causes and played a leading role in the Greek independence campaign, though he died before seeing battle. Nor can his 'mad' traits be discounted, so this eponym is definitely accurate.
(See also Pyrrhic below)
A word that is underused because 'Pyrrhic' is overused, 'cadmean' is exclusively seen in connection with a victory, for it means a win achieved at great loss to oneself and one's companions or entourage. Cadmus, the mythical founder of the city of Thebes, needed water for his new metropolis, and sent his followers and friends to fetch the waters from a spring. Unfortunately for them, the spring was guarded by a water dragon who made mincemeat of Cadmus's people, but not the leader himself. Having killed the monster, only then did Cadmus find out it was a pet dragon of the god Ares, who duly made his life hell on earth thereafter. Winning isn't everything, especially when you're up against the vengeful denizens of Olympus.
Meaning 'descended from Charles', this adjective refers to the powerful dynasty of the Frankish kings who ruled much of France and Germany from 751AD to just before the end of the first millennium. In monarchical terms, such dynasties usually take their name from its founding king, but when you consider that the first King of the Franks was Pepin the Short, you can see why the family preferred the name of his father, Charles Martel. Known as 'The Hammer', though he never took the title of king, Charles was a great warrior who united the Franks and fought off the Muslim invaders from the south, paving the way for Pepin to take the kingship. Though a good king himself, Pepin was succeeded by his son, another Charles, better known in history as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.
Martel and Charlemagne were both called Carolus in Latin, so the dynasty came to be called Carolingian, though by rights it should have been named after the true founder, and termed 'Peninian'. And that's the long and the short of it.
How does an excessively misogynist person carry the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a simple French soldier in the Napoleonic wars who may or may not have existed? 'Chauvinist', both as a noun and adjective, and the condition of chauvinism, are nowadays almost exclusively used in the context of gender differentiation – male chauvinist pigs, usually.
Yet chauvinist originally meant excessively patriotic, and takes its root from Nicolas Chauvin, who was supposedly a foot soldier in the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte and who was distinguished by his blind patriotism, belief in French superiority and devotion to 'l'Empereur'. He was allegedly badly wounded, even maimed, and may also have been honoured by Bonaparte himself.
The trouble with this eponym is that Chauvin may have been a fantasy as no one has ever found an official army or government record of such a person. His supposed character was used by many writers, however, usually as a figure of fun in the post-Bonaparte era.
In time, Chauvin's excess of love for his country came to be analogously applied to over-the-top zealotry and claims of superiority of any kind. So next time someone calls you a chauvinist, male or female, do not return the insult but content yourself with the realisation that your knowledge, at least, is superior because you now know they are calling you after a man who probably didn't exist.
CHEKHOVIAN; CHEKHOV'S GUN
Anton Chekhov's very Russian convolutions have graced the stage since the plays were written, mostly in the 1890s, following his period as a short-story writer. 'Chekhovian' describes work that resembles that of Chekhov (1860–1904), perhaps set in that period, with ensemble playing and usually full of Russian gloom.
'Chekhov's Gun' is also something invented by the writer. To paraphrase him, 'If you show the audience a gun in the first Act, it must be fired in Act Three.' It's now accepted as a staple of theatre, even if Chekhov doesn't always get the credit.
Pertaining to King David of the Israelites, who was a controversial figure even in his own lifetime. He famously slew Goliath of Gath with a slingshot – actually, the stone only knocked out the giant and David hurriedly lopped off his head – giving us the eponymous 'David and Goliath' contest which is used by too many clichéd commentators. David took Uriah the Hittite's wife – beautiful Bathsheba – after sending him to die in battle, and saw his own son, Absalom, killed in a rebellion against his rule.
Yet he established Jerusalem as capital of Israel and God made the Davidic Covenant with him – the promise that the Messiah would come from the line of David, and his kingdom would last for ever. The Davidic psalms, some of which he composed (but not all as was traditionally thought), remain some of the finest prayer-hymns in any religion.
The dickens of the thing about Charles Dickens is that his varied canon should be impossible to encapsulate in a single word.
Think of Charles Dickens' books and most literate people will conjure up a plethora of scenes: Scrooge reaching out to Tiny Tim; Sidney Carton going bravely to the guillotine; Wilkins Micawber saying something will turn up; Oliver Twist asking for more; and Pip loving Estella after the looming presence of Magwitch.
With all the vast array of characters and locations in his books, why does the word 'Dickensian' conjure up an image of London's reeking underbelly in Victorian times?
Some writers have used the adjective to describe Christmas scenes, and others use Dickensian in an almost pejorative sense, as in Dickensian whimsy or sentimentality. By far the most common usage of Dickensian, however, is linked to descriptions of 19th-century London, tales of tenemented slums and fog-bound streets full of orphaned children, heart-of-gold prostitutes and nasty thieves.
Dickensian poverty was very real, and Dickens himself experienced it. His father, John, was a Navy clerk until his rash spending landed him and his family – except young Charles – in Marshalsea Prison until his debts were repaid when an aunt died and left John Dickens a legacy.
The family left prison but continued to struggle, their income boosted partially by Charles working ten hours a day in a shoe-polish factory where working conditions were inhumane.
The genius of the author was to remember these bitter times and write so eloquently about them when he turned to journalism and fiction. He was a superb journalist who wrote shorthand fluently, allowing him to cover events and politics in a swift and memorable manner. It was when he moved into fiction that he truly exposed the horrors in which the poor and downtrodden lived in a style that was both readable and influential – such was the public outrage he occasioned by his books that entire slum areas were cleared and rebuilt.
Excerpted from Harvey Wallbangers and Tam O'Shanters by Martin Hannan. Copyright © 2011 Martin Hannan. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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