Name game: The slang system has left Senator Santorum feeling very uneasy

We know about sandwich and cardigan, but santorum? The story of how names pass into common use can be eye-opening.

Rick Santorum, who is running for the Republican nomination in next year's presidential contest, does not want his name to become an eponym. This is understandable, when you know what the word "eponym" means – it is a word derived from a person's name – and what the word "santorum" will mean, if a campaign launched eight years ago by a gay newspaper columnist achieves its objective.

In April 2003, Senator Santorum, as he then was, gave an interview in which he likened consensual gay sex within the home to bigamy, polygamy, incest, adultery and bestiality. In revenge, a columnist named Dan Savage ran a competition to create a new definition of the word "santorum".

The winning entry is far too graphic to be reproduced in a family newspaper, but if you search for "santorum" on Google you will find out what it means before you learn anything else about the former senator from Pennsylvania.

If it sticks, he will not be the first American to have his name used to describe something unpleasant. When the settlers of Virginia were fighting in 1780 to free themselves from English rule, they had to find a way to deter Virginian Tories who stayed loyal to George III, so at least two local magistrates, each coincidentally named Lynch, assumed the authority to have suspected traitors whipped or hanged. One of the two – probably Charles Lynch, of Bedford County, Virginia, rather than William Lynch of Pittsylvania County – became a folk hero. To "lynch" was originally an honourable act of dispensing popular justice where the official law courts were out of reach. It became a negative verb when it was taken up by anti-slavery campaigners in the 1830s to describe mob violence in the slave-owning South.

During Elbridge Gerry's final term as Governor of Massachusetts, before he moved on in 1813 to be Vice-president of the USA, he redrew the state's electoral boundaries to increase his party's chances of winning. One of the electoral districts he created had such a peculiar shape that his opponents mockingly claimed that it looked like a salamander. Hence "gerrymander".

Teddy Roosevelt is more affectionately commemorated. In 1902, the President went on a bear hunt in Mississippi which descended into farce when the only bear he found looked so forlorn that he refused to shoot it for sport. This inspired a famous cartoon, which in turn inspired an enterprising New York toy manufacturer to start selling market "teddy" bears.

There was also a Texas rancher named Samuel Augustus Maverick whose practice of allowing his cattle to wander the range unbranded was considered rather odd. There were seven brothers named Jacuzzi who emigrated from Italy to California, one of whom had a grandson named Roy who marketed an electrically operated bubble bath. And there was a New Hampshire tree surgeon named Earl Silas Tupper who designed an airtight plastic container.

But enough of Americans. Eponyms season our language. Most refer to long-dead and often obscure Europeans whose names we casually repeat without being aware that they existed. The man whose name is probably used unknowingly more often than anyone else's was the First Lord of the Admiralty in the latter half of the 18th century who sponsored Captain Cook's sea voyages. There is an urban myth that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was a compulsive gambler who could not bear to break off his addiction long enough to eat so had his servants bring him a slice of meat between two slices of bread. A more reliable version of the story is that he was a workaholic who did not want to leave his desk.

When Bridget Jones noted in her fictional diary that she was going to "spend the evening eating doughnuts in a cardigan with egg on it", she paid an unwitting tribute to one of the worst commanders in British military history. The Earl of Cardigan was a ferocious disciplinarian – or, to use a slightly dated term, a martinet (after Jean Martinet, inspector general of the army of Louis XIV) – and a product of the system enforced by the Duke of Wellington which allowed rich aristocrats to buy military commission. Cardigan bought the Light Brigade, which he led to slaughter at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Cardigan sailed home early from the war, and was fêted as a national hero until the full facts of his incompetence caught up with him. While his popularity was at its peak, a smart London shopkeeper put on sale knitted jumpers buttoned down the front, like the one the Earl wore as he rode into the valley of death, and sold them as "cardigans".

Wellington was much indebted for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo to an officer in the Royal Artillery named Henry Shrapnel, who devised an exploding shell that wreaked havoc in the French ranks. One of the officers on the losing side in that battle is reputed to have been the semi-legendary Nicolas Chauvin, famous for staying obstinately loyal for the rest of his days to the memory of the Emperor and French military prowess. The French Revolution, which gave rise to Napoleon, was provoked, of course, by the rapacious extravagance of the courts of successive French kings, including Louis XIV, one of whose finance ministers, Etienne de Silhouette, is reputed to have taxed the poor so mercilessly that they cried: "We are shadows, too poor to wear colour. We are Silhouettes!"

But there were those with reason to be glad of the fall of Napoleon and the extinguishing of the French Revolution, including an Italian scientist persecuted by the occupying French forces who was famed for discovering that inert frogs could be enlivened, or galvanised, by an electric current. He was Luigi Galvani. Electric current is measured in amperes, or amps, after the French physicist André-Marie Ampère, whose father was executed by the revolutionaries on one of those wooden decapitating machines introduced in France at the suggestion of a National Assembly member named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Sticking with electricity, every light bulb bears the letter "w", for wattage, after James Watt, the Scot who invented the steam engine, while the "v" for voltage refers to Alessandro Volta, the Italian who invented the battery.

The ubiquitous ballpoint pen is named after a Hungarian, Laszlo Jozsef Biro, who wanted a pen that did not leave ink stains. Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was the German physicist who invented the thermometer. Anders Celsius was a Swedish astronomer. Charles Macintosh was the Scottish chemist who discovered that the dissolved India rubber produce during the manufacture of gas from coal was waterproof. The Bowler brothers were London hat-makers.



St Pantaleon, the patron saint of Venice, is usually depicted wearing flared trousers known as pantaleones. Diedrich Knickerbocker was the pseudonym under which Washington Irving wrote, in 1809, a satirical history of New York featuring Dutch settlers who dressed in loose breeches. Amelia Bloomer was an American journalist and feminist who campaigned for women to be allowed to wear something more comfortable than corsets and tight dresses, such as long, baggy pants that narrowed to a cuff at the ankles. Jules Léotard was the French circus performer who inspired the song about "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", who wore a tight one-piece body suit to show off his muscles.

Adolphe Sax was a 19th-century Belgian instrument designer, whose saxotromba and saxhorn never caught on, but the saxophone did. Ned Ludd was no inventor. He was a labourer from Anstey, near Leicester, who smashed up his master's machine in a fit of rage, and whose name was invoked by artisans who took direct action when their livelihoods were threatened by the introduction of machinery early in the 19th century.

At the end of the same century, in 1898, several newspapers became exercised about the behaviour of Irish ruffians in Southwark in south London, and focused on a bouncer who killed a policeman in a street brawl. The correct spelling of his name was probably Houlihan, but the newspapers misspelt it "Hooligan". The Irish contributed another word to the language when they organised a successful campaign to withhold the rent due to the Earl of Erne in protest at the behaviour of his land agent, Captain Charles Boycott.

In ancient times, there was the formidable Queen Artemisia, who ruled a part of what is now Turkey after the death of King Mausolus, her husband, who was also her brother. To honour his memory and legitimise her hold on power, she had his body interred in a magnificent tomb. The "Mausoleum" was one of the original seven wonders of the world.

Draco was a citizen of Athens in the 7th century BC, who cannot be blamed if that city's laws were draconian, because he was just the scribe who wrote them down. Abu Abdallah ibn Musa al'Khwarizmi was a Persian mathematician who lived approximately 1,200 years ago whose name has been corrupted to "algorithm", while the word "algebra" comes from the title of his book Hisab Al-Jabr wal Mugabalah.

It seems unlikely that Julius Caesar was really born by Caesarean section, because his mother survived, but it is one of the ways his name is perpetuated. Others are "Tsar" and "Kaiser", and in the month of July, which is followed by a month named after his great-nephew Augustus. The salad, however, was created by an Italian/Mexican chef named Caesar Cardini.

Jean Nicot was the explorer who introduced tobacco to the court of Catherine de' Medici. Franz Mesmer was a German physician who developed a theory about the existence of animal magnetism, which led to the development of hypnosis.

In 1896, a German psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing compiled a reference book that described previously little-known aspects of human sexuality, including the derivation of exotic pleasure from either dealing out or receiving pain and punishment. To give these conditions names, he turned to literature, naming one after the infamous Marquis de Sade and the other after an Austrian writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose novel Venus in Furs has a hero who loves to be whipped by his mistress.

Sadism, or worse, lies behind that very unpleasant expression "Sweet Fanny Adams". People use it thinking that it is a euphemism for "f*** all". It is far more unpleasant than that.

Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old girl from Alton, in Hampshire, who was abducted, murdered and dismembered in August 1867 by a paedophile, a local clerk who was caught and hanged on Christmas Eve in front of a crowd of about 5,000. In 1869, there was a change in the diet served to the Royal Navy. The sailors did not like the tinned meat they expected to eat, and claimed that it tasted of "Sweet Fanny Adams" – an example of Victorian sick humour, by comparison with which "santorum" is mild indeed.

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