What Is an Eponym? Meaning and Popular Examples

Did you know that the word sideburns is an eponym? An eponym is when a discovery, invention, place, work of art, etc. is named after a person. Get an in-depth definition of what an eponym is along with several eponym examples.

Portrait of General Burnside as Inspiration for Eponym Sideburns Portrait of General Burnside as Inspiration for Eponym Sideburns
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What Is an Eponym?

You might not realize it, but you use eponyms all the time. An eponym is when the names of activities, products, objects, and discoveries take their name from a particular person. In modern usage, it can also be when a brand name becomes synonymous with that item.

Think of how someone with an inferiority complex is said to have a Napoleon complex. Named after Napoleon Bonaparte, it's typically attributed to short people that make up for their stature by being overly aggressive. While Napoleon was actually of average height, political cartoons didn’t present him that way. Hence the Napoleon complex.

Types of Eponym Examples

Now that you know what an eponym is, you can probably think of lots of them. Eponym examples can be found in all different types from product eponyms to literary eponyms.

Historical & Scientific Eponym Examples

Much like Napoleon, many historical figures, inventors and theorists have become eponyms. It could be from their contributions to society or just for their unique hair such as in the case of Ambrose Burnside. For example, the word sandwich comes from the Earl of Sandwich, a noble title in the Peerage of England. Explore other famous historical eponyms:

  • Alzheimer’s disease - Alois Alzheimer is credited with identifying "presenile dementia," which was later named Alzheimer’s disease after him.

  • America - America takes its name from Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. While he may not have discovered America, he did point out that a new continent had been discovered, which influenced how the map was drawn in 1507.

  • Boycott - The term boycott is derived from an English land agent named Captain Charles C. Boycott who was ostracized or “boycotted” by the Irish for his poor treatment of them.

  • Bloomers - This women’s garment takes its name from women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer. Bloomers are a type of underwear that was developed in the mid-19th century as a more healthy and comfortable alternative to the undergarments of the time. They became a symbol of women’s rights in the 1850s.

  • Cardigan - The button-up sweater is named for James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British lieutenant general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War; Earl of Cardigan is a title in the Peerage of England. The cardigan was modeled after the knitted wool waistcoats that British officers, including Brudenell, wore during battle. The earl’s celebrity helped to boost the sale of cardigans, which were further popularized by Coco Chanel in the 1920s.

  • Diesel - German-French mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel invented the Diesel engine that bears his name.

  • Fahrenheit - Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit was a 17th-century physicist and inventor who invented the reliable thermometers and the Fahrenheit scale, which is named after him.

  • Marxism - This political term refers to the philosophies of Karl Marx, whose writings gave birth to socialism and communism, which are classified as Marxist movements.

  • Mesmerize - The term mesmerize comes from the physician Franz Mesmer, who established a theory of energy transference between all animate and inanimate things called “animal magnetism.” This led to the coining of the term mesmerism to describe this phenomenon.

  • Orwellian - George Orwell was a British writer who revolutionized the dystopian genre. His novel 1984 gave birth to the adjective Orwellian to describe something potentially totalitarian and threatening to free society.

  • Reaganomics - This economic term takes its name from President Ronald Reagan, whose economic policies included reducing taxes and an unrestricted free market.

  • Sideburns - Ambrose Burnside was an American railroad executive, soldier, industrialist, and politician whose distinctive facial hair inspired the word sideburns.

  • Shrapnel - Henry Shrapnel was a British Army officer and inventor credited with creating the shrapnel shell, which carried several bullets or pieces of metal set to explode on impact. Today, shrapnel refers to pieces of a bomb.

  • Watt - John Watt was a Scottish inventor who improved upon the steam engine technology of the time with his own Watt steam engine in 1776. Watt gave rise to the concept of horsepower, the SI unit of power and, of course, the watt.

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Eponym Examples in Literature

Any time a novel is named for the main character, it’s an eponym. Therefore, there are vast examples in literature. For example, the book Jane Eyre is named after the main character Jane Eyre and follows her plights through life. Explore other literary examples of eponyms.

  • Emma by Jane Austen

  • Gulliver’s Travels by John Swift

  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

  • Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

You’ll also find characters that become eponyms outside of the name of the story. For example, Chicken Little is a character in a fable, but the name is also used as a term for someone who gets panicked easily. Another example is Goody-Two-Shoes. While it’s a character in a fable, it’s also used negatively to describe someone who always does the right thing. Another popular eponym example is a grinch, the miserly character from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Eponym Examples in Pop Culture

When it comes to eponyms in pop culture, all you must do is look at a few album titles. When an artist or band releases a self-titled album, this is an example of an eponym because the product is named after the creator.

  • "ABBA" - 1975 album title by the Swedish pop group ABBA

  • "The Beach Boys" - 1985 album title by the American rock band The Beach Boys

  • "The Beatles" - 1968 album title by the English rock band The Beatles

  • "Madonna" - original title of the 1983 album by singer Madonna

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Eponym Examples in Mythology

You might not realize how many times you’ve used a mythological eponym. These bad boys are so ingrained in English, you might not even see them. For example, Achilles’ heel is a weakness or vulnerability that goes back to the story of Achilles. Some other popular mythological eponyms you might not know include:

  • Atlas - According to myth, Atlas was a Titan who was condemned to hold up the sky for eternity. The term Atlas refers to a collection of maps.

  • Draconian - You may have heard the term draconian in reference to harsh or severe policies or actions. What you may not know is that this term is named after Draco, the first recorded Athenian legislator known for his harsh laws and punishments.

  • Erotic - Eros is the god of erotic love in the Greek pantheon. The Greek Eros (ἔρως) means “desire.”

  • Herculean - Hercules is one of the great heroes of Greek mythology. The term herculean is used to describe an impossible task or something or someone characterized by great strength.

  • Hygiene - Hygieia is the goddess of cleanliness, so naturally, her name inspired the word hygiene.

  • Hypnosis - Hypnos is the personification of sleep in Greek mythology whose name is the origin of hypnosis.

  • Mercurial - Mercury is the Roman name for the messenger god known as Hermes in the Greek pantheon. Mercury is the namesake of both the planet and the element as well as the term mercurial, which refers to unpredictable changes.

  • Narcissistic - In Greek mythology, Narcissus was known for his beauty and vanity and fell in love with his own reflection.

  • Panic - The figure Pan in Greek mythology is often associated with mischief and could cause flocks to stampede. The prefix pan- means “all.”

  • Tantalizing - Tantalus was a wealthy king in Greek mythology who offended the gods so much that he was condemned to an eternity of hunger and thirst. Thus, he was “tantalized” by the food he could not eat.

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Product Eponym Examples

Eponyms are not always a thing or concept named after a specific person. Proprietary eponyms are brand names or generic trademarks that became synonymous with the product itself and ultimately common household names. One great example is Kleenex. Kleenex is a brand name of facial tissues; however, it’s become synonymous for all facial tissues despite the brand.

Other product names that are eponyms include:

  • Aspirin

  • Coke

  • Crockpot

  • Escalator

  • Jell-O

  • Lego

  • Motrin

  • Post-It

  • Q-Tip

  • Sharpie

  • Tylenol

  • Xerox

  • Zipper

Exploring Eponyms

Eponyms are all around you. Some are clear, like a self-titled album or book, but others, such as sandwich, have become everyday words. Knowing what an eponym is can help you to find a few new ones. Now that you’ve got the meaning of eponym down, find out what anaphora is and how it is used through anaphora examples.