Naming Rights

In Ireland in 1880, there was a British landlord named Charles who rented to the tenant farmers who worked his land. The British would have called him “a nasty piece of work”; we Americans, always more direct, would have labeled him a jerk.

There was a serious downturn in the Irish economy around that time, and the other landlords reduced their rent by twenty-five percent. But our odious Charles was having none of that. He not only refused to lower the rent, but he also began evicting his tenants. Of course, the remaining tenants could have gone on strike — a form of legitimate labor protest that stretched all the way back to 1100 BC in Ancient Egypt — but heartless Charles would simply have hired more desperate, and therefore more willing, tenants to replace them.

All the shop owners and businesses in the area also despised Charles and wanted to help the displaced tenants in their hour of need. But they felt powerless to do so until, in an inspired moment, they decided to band together and refuse to buy all vegetables, grains, eggs, or honey from Charles’ large farm until he granted his tenants decent wages.

Oh, dear — absent-minded me: I gave you Charles’ first name but neglected to mention his surname: BOYCOTT.

And so a new form of consumer protest was born and named not for the noble, high-principled group who invented it, but for the villain whose greed occasioned it. Did you know that we have a term for these types of words - words that are named for people, places or things, real or imaginary? 

We call such words “eponyms” (EPP-puh-nims). And thanks to such terms, I am guessing that you probably can figure out what piece of clothing the French trapeze artist Jules Leotard invented, and what medical specialty consumed the career of the Italian Dr. Fallopi. I doubt I‘d stump you now if I asked you to name the Polish physicist who invented the first successful thermometer (hint: his name wasn’t Professor Celsius).

And if you are as much an Anglophile as I am (impossible), you might join me in bemoaning the fact that our word “boycott” was derived from such a British scoundrel. I’d prefer to tell you about a much happier, more delightful invention that also owes its name to an Englishman. This British earl gave his name to an item of food we all adore.

He actually was a bit of a rogue himself — a compulsive gambler. All who knew him said he would rather place a bet than eat. That is why, back in 1762, at supper time, the earl was on a winning streak at his weekly home poker game and didn’t want to risk his luck by taking a break for dinner and chance ending his luck. So he came up with the novel idea of asking his servant to run to the kitchen and bring him back a thick layer of beef between two pieces of bread.

Yes, this was the Earl of Sandwich, a port town near the larger port city of Broadstairs. I am convinced if he had been the earl of the larger city instead, his new delightful food invention would never have caught on. Can you imagine sitting down at a restaurant and ordering a bacon, lettuce, and tomato broadstairs for lunch?

And I might as well confess here that I owe an apology to one Chef Cardini. He moved his Los Angeles Italian restaurant to Tijuana, Mexico, from 1920 to 1933 during Prohibition. He knew his customers — hard-drinking Hollywood stars — would make the two-hour-plus drive on the weekends to indulge in all the legal alcohol they wanted south of the border. Many suggested that he offer a floor show during the meals.

Too cheap to hire entertainment, Cardini came up with a wonderful alternative. He trained his waiters to make a stellar production out of the preparation of the restaurant’s signature appetizer. Every time he prepared this dish, each waiter stood tableside and, with great fanfare, placed lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, egg, Dijon mustard, black pepper, Parmesan cheese, romaine lettuce, and — ta-da! — luscious anchovies in a wooden salad bowl. This creation was first called “Salad Cardini,” taking the chef's last name, but the chef was on a first-name basis with all his Hollywood clientele, so they insisted on calling it by his first name: Caesar salad.

As I said, I owe Chef Cardini an apology, because all my life I assumed the name of this famous salad went back to Julius himself. After all, the lettuce is from his favorite city: “Rome-main.”

So may I propose a toast to all the fascinating people whose names ended up in our English vocabulary. You all toast with champagne; I’ll just settle for my usual Shirley Temple. 

Older Post Newer Post