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10 Awful Words and the People They're Named For

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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." For the following 10 eponyms, we ask: Did these word-inspiring folks really deserve to have their names dragged 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

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 enough death and misery that he pretty much deserves to be synonymous with a violent, metallic byproduct of combat.

6. DRACONIAN

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 handing down the death penalty for 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. BOGART (THE JOINT)

In his films, Humphrey Bogart smoked enough cigarettes to choke a chimney, so it's no surprise he inspired an eponym that usually means "to monopolize the marijuana." More specifically though, the word referred to Bogart's style of smoking — letting each cigarette dangle off his lips for a long time. The term has some flexibility though, ever since Homer Simpson uttered one of the most notable non-drug-related uses of "bogart" in recent memory. To defend Marge from the advances of amorous bikers, Homer said, "My wife is not a doobie to be passed around! I took a sacred vow on my wedding day to bogart her forever." Mmm: bogart.

9. 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), and 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 St. Audrey became "tawdry." It was a short trip from there to the dictionary, and tawdry has been synonymous with gaudy ever since.

10. 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.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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