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Kevin Bacon and Sir Francis Bacon // Getty. Faith Bacon // Wikimedia Commons. Background // iStock
Kevin Bacon and Sir Francis Bacon // Getty. Faith Bacon // Wikimedia Commons. Background // iStock

How Bacons (as in People Named Bacon) Have Helped Shape Western Culture

Kevin Bacon and Sir Francis Bacon // Getty. Faith Bacon // Wikimedia Commons. Background // iStock
Kevin Bacon and Sir Francis Bacon // Getty. Faith Bacon // Wikimedia Commons. Background // iStock

When playing a word association game with bacon, after eggs and a few sensory adjectives like crispy, the name Kevin would likely come up pretty quickly. But Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon notwithstanding, the surname Bacon has been around since well before Footloose.

People called Bacon have links to everything from French Impressionism (via Lucy Bacon, the only known Californian to have studied under any of the great Impressionists in Paris); to burlesque (American Faith Bacon is credited with inventing the genre-changing fan dance); to linguistic philosophy (through 13th-century Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon, whose idea that all languages display universal grammar preceded Noam Chomsky by centuries). Throughout history, Bacons have been architects, artists, actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, preachers, and soldiers.

Artist Lucy Bacon's Garden Landscape, 1894–1896. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nowadays, the most well-known Bacon (after Kevin, obviously), is probably Sir Francis Bacon—the philosopher, scientist, and statesman (not to be confused with Francis Bacon the artist, or the cricketer, or Sir Francis's relative Francis Thomas Bacon, the 20th-century engineer and inventor of the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell, a development which powered the space shuttle). The original Francis Bacon was a 17th-century Englishman who is known for modernizing empirical methods. Before him, science was largely based on ideas people made up, saw as religious visions, or deduced by logic. Bacon came up with the idea that scientific knowledge should be based only on what we can see and measure. He died on April 9, 1626, supposedly of bronchitis, while investigating the effects of ice in preserving meat (though it was chicken, not bacon, that he was testing).

But despite what seems like an obvious etymology, the surname Bacon doesn't necessarily have any connection to cured meat at all. One possible root is the Germanic Bac(c)o or Bahho, possibly from a root meaning "to fight," which appeared in Old French as Bacus and then came to England with the Normans in 1066 and became Bacun or Bacon. Another possibility, also from the Normans, was the French name Bascon or Bascoun. Almost a century after the Norman conquest of Britain, the first recorded spelling of the family name, that of William Bacun, appeared around 1150 in the county of Staffordshire. However, early etymologists studying the English family name suggest it may have come from the Saxon baccen or buccen, which meant "beech tree," or from the Saxon bacan, for "bake." The beech tree explanation is that the best pigs were said to eat beech(en) mast—the nut of the beech tree. In any case, people were often named for their occupation, so at least some of the original bearers of the name were likely to have been pork butchers, although the food meaning of bacon did not appear until about 1350.

In America, historically, Bacons have been most common in Vermont and other areas where Puritans from England settled in the 17th century, such as Massachusetts and the rest of New England. The Puritans tended to be wealthy enough to pay for their own passage, meaning they were more likely to be craftsmen and tradesmen than farmers, wealth being a powerful aid to the survival of a name. Kevin Bacon is descended from a branch of Quaker Bacons who left England because of religious persecution (which makes his star-making role as a teen with an insatiable urge to dance all the more interesting, considering his ancestors were also opposed to dancing on religious grounds).

 

Urban planner Edmund Bacon has been called "The Father of Modern Philadelphia." He is also the father of actor Kevin Bacon.

Kevin's father, urban planner Edmund Bacon, was one of the key figures in shaping how America looks today. He redeveloped Philadelphia in the decades following WWII and, as with other architects of the era, was treated as a celebrity, even appearing on the cover of TIME. Another celebrated Bacon architect is Henry Bacon, best known for designing the Lincoln Memorial. His travels in Europe brought a Greek and Roman influence to many of his most famous designs, with buildings and monuments all across America.

Quite a number of Bacons have worked in the political realm (though it doesn’t seem that any created the concept of pork-barrel politics). An American ambassador to France, Robert Bacon, narrowly missed returning to America on the Titanic when the new French ambassador was delayed on his way to take up the post. Bacon County, Georgia is named for four-time Georgian senator and former Confederate soldier Augustus Octavius Bacon, who was once a substantial landowner in the south.

Leonard Bacon's writing had an enormous influence on President Abraham Lincoln. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There were Bacons who worked to overthrow slavery and segregation too. Pastor and Yale professor Leonard Bacon, who was well-traveled and widely published, was strongly associated with the anti-slavery movement. His writing was highly influential to President Abraham Lincoln, particularly this quote from his work Slavery Discussed in Occasional Essays (1846), which Lincoln referenced often: "If that form of government, that system of social order is not wrong—if those laws of the Southern States, by virtue of which slavery exists there, and is what it is, are not wrong—nothing is wrong."

These days, according to the 2010 census, Bacon is the 1181st most common name in America, meaning there are just under 30,000 Bacons in the States—not including the small handful of children given Bacon as a first name. Though not remotely common for either gender (it only ranks as the 15,220th name for girls), it did increase for boys to rank as the 7708th most popular name between 2013 and 2014 (meaning that there are roughly six baby Bacon boys per million births).

So whichever branch of Bacons any modern bearers of the name are descended from, they're likely within six degrees of separation from one who helped shaped Western history and culture—and from the game's namesake.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents
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Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.

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