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8 Words You Might Not Know Were Named for Scientists

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If you know even a small amount of any Romance language, many English words have relatively obvious etymological backgrounds. But the paths to their origins aren't always so clear when words are eponyms—coined from people's names—and scientists are very often the culprits in these cases. Here are some words you might not know were eponyms, and whose scientific namesakes have been hiding in plain sight.

1. VOLT

The unit that measures electric potential is named after Count Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist (pictured above) who invented the electrical battery, known as the voltaic pile, in 1800. The volt unit of measurement wasn’t approved by the International Electrical Congress until 1880, however, long after Volta had died. His memory also stuck around in yet another way, at least in Italy: Before the country switched over to the euro, he appeared on the 10,000-lira note.

2. GALVANIZE

Portrait of Luigi Galvani via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Speaking of Volta: He was inspired (or perhaps egged on) in his research by his rival and contemporary physicist Luigi Galvani, who in the 1780s figured out that you can shock dead frogs and make their muscles twitch (he called his discovery "animal electricity"). A variety of words related to electricity were coined in Galvani's honor, but today the most commonly used in everyday speech is galvanize, meaning to excite someone or something into action. 

3. GUILLOTINE

Although the guillotine’s prototype was built by French doctor Antoine Louis and German engineer (and harpsichord maker) Tobias Schmidt, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin just, well, really liked it. The idea of a more humane killing machine so impressed the French Revolution-era anatomy professor that he stood before France’s National Assembly in 1789 to recommend it as a much less painful method of execution than the sword, axe, or breaking wheel. The Assembly laughed at him at first, but the lethal device—though first known as a Louison or Louisette (after Dr. Louis)—eventually became an eponym in Guillotin’s honor.

4. MACADAMIA

John Macadam via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Scottish-born John Macadam was a well-respected chemist and politician in his adopted country of Australia, but he didn’t really have anything to do with the indigenous nut that bears his name.

Macadamias were originally called jindilli or gyndl by aboriginal people in Australia, among other names, but they weren’t named or even “discovered” by Europeans—ultimately via explorer Allan Cunningham—until 1828. German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt collected the first specimens in 1843, but it still took until 1858 for German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller to cook up a genus name for the plant. He called it Macadamia after his buddy John, esteemed scientist and secretary to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria.

5. ALGORITHM

Medieval Muslim astronomer and mathematician Muḥammad al-Khwārizmī has a few different words named after him, in a few different languages, but the one you’re most familiar with is probably algorithm. (The Latinized version of his surname was Algorismus.) He's also considered one of the fathers of algebra, after the title of his most famous book, Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr waʾl-muqābala (“The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”)—al-jabr means "reunion of broken parts."

6. BAUD

Émile Baudot, engraving by A. Delzers, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

If you remember calling BBSes with your 2400-baud (or slower) dial-up modem in the ’90s, this word may ring a bell (or a carrier scream?). A baud measures symbols transmitted per second that are transmitted over a telecommunications link, and the term is an abbreviation of French engineer Émile Baudot’s name. He invented the Baudot code—a predecessor of ASCII—that was widely used in telegraphy in the late 19th and very early 20th century.

7. NICOTINE

When French scholar Jean Nicot was appointed as ambassador to Portugal, he thought he’d impress the French court big time when he brought back some tobacco plants from a 1559 trip to Lisbon. (He’d originally picked them up from Portuguese humanist philosopher Damião de Góis, who’d hyped them as “miraculous.”) Back in France, Nicot made an ointment from the plant and successfully treated a patient’s tumor with it, after which he was convinced that tobacco would heal any ailment from gout to cancer. He next presented some tobacco leaves to French queen Catherine de Medici, touting it as a cure for her headaches, and the plant thereafter became popular among European nobility in the form of snuff. Two centuries later, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus named the genus of cultivated tobacco Nicotiana after Jean, and today, his name shows up in the addictive stimulant found in the nefarious nightshade as well.

8. DECIBEL

Yes, he invented the phone, but Scottish-American engineer Alexander Graham Bell is responsible for a whole list of other cool stuff too, including an automated wheat-husker (which he built at age 12!), an audiometer to evaluate how well a person can hear, an early metal detector (in emergency response to the shooting of President Garfield), an improved version of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, and … the word bel, a unit that expresses the ratio of two values, usually of power or intensity. Taken from AGB’s last name, of course, bels are pretty big, and the word isn’t used often. As such, you may be more familiar with the word that describes a tenth of a bel: decibel.

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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