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Awful words named for real people

  • Story Highlights
  • Some awful words named after real people
  • Tawdry named for St. Audrey who wore audacious necklaces
  • Draconian came from lawyer who wanted lazy put to death
  • General Henry Shrapnel built more deadly cannonballs

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By Mark Peters
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Mental Floss

(Mental Floss) -- We all want to live forever. But, chances are, you'd rather forego a legacy altogether than have your name be synonymous with a goofy flub like a spoonerism or a dim-witted word like "dunce."

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You can find a saint under tawdry in the dictionary.

For the following eponyms, we ask: Did these word-inspiring folks really deserve their drag through the linguistic mud?

1. Dunce

Dictionaries don't play fair, and John Duns Scotus is proof.

The 13th/14th-century thinker, whose writings synthesized Christian theology and Aristotle's philosophy, was considerably less dumb than a brick. Unfortunately for Scotus, subsequent theologians took a dim view of all those who championed his viewpoint.

These "Scotists," "Dunsmen," or "Dunses" were considered hairsplitting meatheads and, eventually, just "dunces."

2.(slipping a) Mickey

When you have to drug somebody against their will (hey, you gotta do what you gotta do), it just wouldn't sound right to slip 'em a Ricardo, a Bjorn, or an Evelyn. It's gotta be a Mickey.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mickey Finn was a Chicago saloon owner in one of the seediest parts of town -- and he fit right in.

Finn was known for serving "Mickey Finn Specials," which probably included chloral hydrate, a heavy sedative. After targeted customers passed out, Finn would haul them into his "operating room" and liberate them of all valuables (including shoes).

Never a Host of the Year candidate, this Mickey seems to have thoroughly earned his legacy, so don't hesitate to use it the next time you drug and rob your own customers.

3. Spoonerism

Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844--1930) was famous for his muddled one-liners.

And though it's hard to know which ones he actually said, lines such as "I have a half-warmed fish" and "Yes indeed, the Lord is a shoving leopard" still prove that the sound-switching flub is pretty charming as far as mistakes go.

The spoonerism has even been used as a literary technique by poets and fiction writers, giving Spooner little reason to roll over -- or otherwise inarticulately protest -- in his grave.

4. Lynch

Although several Lynches (not including David) have been investigated by inquisitive etymologists, Virginia native Charles Lynch (1736--1796) is most likely the man behind the murderous word.

Lynch was a patriot, a planter, and a judge. But when he headed a vigilante court to punish Tories (British loyalists) during the American Revolution, he decided to play the roles of jury and executioner, too. Lynch has more than earned his besmirched name.

In fact, he did half the besmirching himself by egotistically referring to his actions as "lynch law" and "lynching."

5. Shrapnel

While battling Napoleon's army, English General Henry Shrapnel (1761--1842) noticed that original-flavor cannonballs just weren't massacring enough enemies for his liking.

So, to get more shebang for his shilling, he filled the cannonballs with bullets and exploding charges. These "shrapnel shells," or "shrapnel-barrages," were pretty darn effective, and later designs proved even more successful in World War I.

Shrapnel didn't get much credit for the "innovation" during his lifetime, but he ultimately contributed to enough death and misery that he pretty much deserves to be synonymous with a violent, metallic byproduct of combat.

6. Draconian

A Lexis-Nexis news search shows that folks are still talking about "draconian policies," "draconian penalties," and, most frighteningly, "draconian sex rules."

Though Athenian lawgiver Draco is not entirely confirmed to have existed, if he were real, then around 621 B.C.E., he instituted two time-honored traditions: 1) writing laws down and 2) making laws that were batcrap-insane

They include ascribing the death penalty to such atrocities as being lazy, whizzing in an alley, and stealing an apple.

Apparently, he justified his measures with a sort of non-logic along the lines of, "Jaywalkers deserve to die, and I can't do anything worse to mass murderers. So what're you gonna do?"

7. Boycott

In a nutshell? Boycott got boycotted. Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832--1897) was a retired English army captain who claimed his unwanted fame in 1880 when the Irish Land League decided to punish him for not lowering his rents.

This then-new strategy, which was a mere paragraph in the Russian-novel-size saga of Irish land reform, was a kind of systematic shunning in which Boycott was cut off from servants, supplies, mail, and lifestyle free of death threats.

He might have been an evil landlord, but if Boycott could see just how successful his name became, he'd probably be a very sad, regretful, evil landlord.

8. Tawdry

The story of St. Audrey (also known as St. Etheldreda) is a classic example of how bad names happen to good people.

St. Audrey was the daughter of the king of East Anglia (then the Norfolk section of Anglo-Saxon England), who lived a monastery-founding, self-abdicating life.

But, when she died of the plague in 679, she was sporting a pretty nasty-looking tumor on her neck, which gossipmongers blamed on her penchant for wearing audacious necklaces in her youth.

After her death, silk scarves called "St. Audrey laces" were sold in her honor at Ely's annual St. Audrey's Fair. Then the British tendency for dropping letters and syllables took over, and Audrey became "tawdry."

It was a short trip from there to the dictionary, and tawdry has been synonymous with gaudy ever since.

9. Chauvinism

Nicolas Chauvin was an early 19th--century French soldier who was so patriotic and nationalistic, he gave patriotism and nationalism a bad name -- or at least a new name.

A slave to the cult of Napoleon, Chauvin shed his fair share of blood for the emperor.

How did Napoleon show his appreciation? By giving Chauvin a ceremonial saber, a ribbon, and a pittance of a pension.

Later, however, French dramatists began basing über-patriotic characters on Chauvin, which paved the way for the soldier's ultimate reward: a dubious spot in the English language. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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