What's in a name: Facts and origins behind names and descriptions

Let’s take a step back to see who the men and women were whose names have been immortalized in our lexicon.

 Florence Nightingale, circa 1860, in the National Portrait Gallery, London (photo credit: HENRY HERING/WIKIPEDIA)
Florence Nightingale, circa 1860, in the National Portrait Gallery, London
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Have you ever been swept off your feet by a Romeo, a Casanova, or a Don Juan, or cut to the quick by a Mata Hari? In the latter case, one would hope to be treated by a Florence Nightingale or comforted by a Mother Teresa.

These terms have long been incorporated into our vocabulary and connote the qualities that their namesakes were noted for. And they’re in good company. There are countless names of historical figures and fictional characters that have become part of our common parlance. Let’s take a step back to see who the men and women were whose names have been immortalized in our lexicon.

For starters, Romeo, of course, was the ardent young lover in Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy Romeo and Juliet, written in the 1590s. Casanova (Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt) was a real-life womanizer from Venice who lived and loved from 1725 to 1798, while Don Juan was a fictional philanderer first written about in a 1630 play by Spanish author Tirso de Molino entitled The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest.

A Mata Hari is a beautiful and seductive female spy, or more commonly, a duplicitous woman. The term is derived from Dutch-born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, an exotic dancer and courtesan in Paris who used the stage name, Mata Hari. She served as a spy for both the French and the German intelligence services during World War I. In 1917, at age 41, she was executed by firing squad in France for being a German spy.

In a more positive vein, a Florence Nightingale is someone who will come to your aid when you are sick or ailing, any time of day or night. The woman in question was a British nurse (1820-1910), who became well-known for her pioneering work during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. Nightingale was called “the lady with the lamp” because she would make rounds at night. She established a nursing school, which laid the foundation for professional nursing. International Nurses Day is celebrated annually worldwide on her birthday, May 12.

 Mother Teresa holds hands with Princess Diana outside the Missionaries of Charity’s residence in New York City in 1987. (credit: REUTERS) Mother Teresa holds hands with Princess Diana outside the Missionaries of Charity’s residence in New York City in 1987. (credit: REUTERS)

A Mother Teresa is a person who is the embodiment of all that is good and kind and caring. Mother Theresa (1910-1997) was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Albania. A Roman Catholic nun, she spent her life ministering to the sick and the impoverished in India and around the world. She founded the Missionaries of Charity congregation in 1950, which has hundreds of missions that help people around the globe. Among the many commendations conferred upon Mother Teresa was the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. When asked what we could be done to promote world peace, she replied, “Go home and love your family.”

In addition to such examples of full names used to connote a character or quality, there are many words based on people’s names that have become nouns and/or verbs.

For example, “boycott” is the act of refusing to buy or use a particular product or service or dealing with a certain country as a form of protest. The term is derived from an Irishman named Charles Boycott (1832-1897), who was an agent for an absent landowner. Boycott refused to give in to the land reforms of the time. In retaliation, the Irish Land League party denied him workers, access to stores, mail, and other services, thus “boycotting” Boycott.

In England, say, if a protest got out of hand, the police might be called in. There, policemen are referred to as “bobbies.” The bobby was named after Sir Robert Peel, who was the British home secretary when the London police force was formed in 1829.

Over the years and in many countries, protests have been staged either for or against the selling and smoking of tobacco. The supporters or detractors can trace the roots of smoking back to Jean Nicot (1530-1600). In has capacity as French ambassador to Portugal, he promoted the habit of smoking by sending tobacco seeds and leaves to France. For his efforts, nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco, bears his name.

Another French official gave his name to another familiar term. The word “silhouette,” a flat, shadow-like outline of a figure against a white background, is attributed to Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), the controller-general of finances under King Louis XV. The people who bore the burden of his onerous taxes were said to have been reduced to mere shadows of their former selves.

In a different mode, many who work out in a fitness regimen to reduce or maintain their shape may wear a leotard. The skintight one-piece garment that covers the torso was created and worn by French acrobatic performer Jules Léotard (1838–1870).

After a vigorous workout, one might want to have a good soak in a Jacuzzi. It was Italian-American Candido Jacuzzi who invented the whirlpool bath in 1949 for his young son who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.

Having a whirl in a different sphere would be to take a ride on a Ferris wheel. The familiar sight at many fairgrounds owes its origin to American engineer George W. G. Ferris, who designed the first one for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The immense vertical wheel with seats around its rim stood 250 feet (76m.) high.

Going to the fair would depend on the weather. Be it in Fahrenheit or Celsius, the forecast would determine if it was clement enough to venture out. But no matter what our activities are, the temperature gauge we consult every day was devised by either Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit or Anders Celsius.

Fahrenheit (1686–1736), born in Danzig (now Gdansk), was a physicist, inventor and scientific instrument maker. A pioneer of exact thermometry, he invented the mercury-in-glass thermometer and the Fahrenheit scale.

Celsius (1701-1744) was a Swedish astronomer, physicist and mathematician. In 1742, he proposed an inverted form of the centigrade temperature scale, which was later renamed Celsius in his honor. Here’s a tip: To convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, double the Celsius number and add 30. So if it’s 20 degrees Celsius in Tel Aviv, it’s about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in New York.

While we’re in the realm of the US, America was named after Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), an Italian merchant and cartographer who drew some of the first maps of the Americas. When Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map in 1507, he named the new continent “America” after Vespucci.

And it was an American president that children the world over can thank for their beloved teddy bears. In a political cartoon in The Washington Post in 1902 based on an actual event, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was depicted on a hunting trip showing compassion toward a captured bear. Inspired by the cartoon, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in New York named Morris Michtom created a little stuffed bear cub and placed it in the window of his candy shop in Brooklyn, with a sign that read “Teddy’s bear” (after sending one to Roosevelt and receiving permission to use his name). The teddy bears were such a success that Michtom established the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.

When it comes to toys, two other names that spring to mind are the Barbie doll and the Rubik’s cube. Barbie is an 11-inch (29 cm.) plastic doll with the figure of an adult woman. The doll was introduced in 1959 by Mattel Inc., a California toy company that was co-founded by Ruth and Elliot Handler. Barbie’s physical appearance was modeled on the German Bild Lilli doll, a risqué gag gift for men that was based on a cartoon character featured in the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung. In 1961, in response to consumer demand, Mattel brought out Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken. Why were the dolls called Barbie and Ken? They were the names of the Handlers’ daughter and son.

The Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Erno Rubik. In the mid-1970s, Rubik worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. He created the cube to help solve the structural problem of moving the parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart. Rubik didn’t realize that he had created a puzzle until the first time he scrambled the cube and then tried to restore it. Originally called the Magic Cube, the 3-D combination puzzle was licensed by Rubik to be sold by the Ideal Toy Corp. in 1980.

So what’s in a name? A myriad of illuminating facts and illustrious figures.  ■