The Star, 1 Jun 2005
Ms EH Poh Nim is a talkative woman who fancies herself something of a wordsmith. She loves to brag about her knowledge of words to anyone who cares to listen.
If she was entertaining clients at the bar and someone ordered a Bloody Mary, she would launch into an explanation of how the cocktail of vodka and tomato juice came to be named thus.
“Did you know that Bloody Mary was named after Queen Mary I? She put to death some 300 people as heretics and imprisoned many more. What a bloody shame, isn’t it?”
If someone at the office came down with diarrhoea, she would announce to everyone that Daniel Elmer Salmon, an American veterinary surgeon, was the one who identified and gave his name to the bacteria Salmonella which was probably the cause of the diarrhoea.
Recently Ms Eh’s principal office in America sent over a representative for a familiarisation visit. Eh Poh Nim and her chubby colleague, Eddie, met her at the airport. While waiting for the American woman to change currency at the money-changer’s, Ms Eh nudged Eddie with a wink, “That’s Big Bertha for you, Eddie,” she said. Eddie frowned, not knowing what she meant.
“Big Bertha is an expression for a fat woman. It also refers to a large calibre gun. In fact, anything with a large size or great range can be called a Big Bertha. The name came from Bertha Krupp, whose grandfather, Alfred Krupp, founded the German armaments factory. The Germans used Big Berthas to shell Paris in World War I. Mmmm, I wonder if Bertha Krupp herself was fat.”
By then, Big Bertha had rejoined them and said, “I hope I can get some good quality chocolates here to take home. I’m boycotting the American chocolates because their fat content is too high. I refuse to have anything to do with it.”
Ms Eh replied, “Of course, we’ve got low-fat chocolates here. Did you know that the word ‘boycott’ was coined from the name of Captain Charles Boycott? He was an English land agent over Irish tenants and when he refused to lower rents during hard times, they ostracised him.”
“Say, you’re a smart cookie,” Big Bertha said admiringly.
“Thanks. Casanova here is also a smart guy,” Ms Eh pointed towards Eddie. “He’s a lady’s man. Don’t you fall under his charm.”
“I am no Casanova!” Eddie protested angrily.
“Did you know there was a real Casanova who lived in the 18th century? He was Giovanni Jacopo Casanova, an Italian adventurer who wrote of his numerous love affairs in 12 volumes of memoirs.”
“I didn’t know that,” Big Bertha said.
“Now you know. In fact there’s a whole bunch of words that are derived from people’s names. They’re called eponymic words. The names themselves are called eponyms.”
“Say, what’s your name again? Eh Poh Nim? That sounds like eponym!” Big Bertha exclaimed.
“You’re right! Never realised that. You guys know of any other eponyms?” Ms Eh asked excitedly.
“There’s ampere or amp for short. It’s a unit for measuring electric current. If I’m not mistaken, the name came from a French scientist, Andre Marie Ampere,” Eddie chipped in.
“Isaac Newton gave his name to newton, a unit for measuring force,” Big Bertha said.
By then, they had already made it to Eddie’s car. Large raindrops suddenly pelted down on them. They scrambled in not a minute too soon.
“What a torrent! I understand the rain here can be rather ferocious. I hope you’ve got a mackintosh in the car,” said Big Bertha.
“No raincoat, but I’ve got an umbrella,” Eddie said.
“Thank goodness for Charles Macintosh. His invention of a waterproof cloth was later made into raincoats,” Ms Eh interjected.
“You’re something of a walking dictionary, Ms Eh. Do you have any favourite eponyms?”
“I like Mae West. As you know, she’s a buxom American actress. She gave her name to a pneumatic life-jacket for airmen which when inflated resembled a well-developed bust. Then there’s Samuel Maverick who was the owner of a large cattle ranch. He didn’t brand his cattle and that made them easy prey for thieves. Now maverick means a young animal which isn’t branded or someone who dissents from the ideas and beliefs of the group he belongs to,” Ms Eh said.
“Ms Eh, do you know what Hobson’s Choice is?” Eddie asked.
“Yep. It means taking the thing offered or nothing at all. Derived from Thomas Hobson who insisted on hiring out his horses in strict rotation. He gave his customers the choice of the horse nearest the stable door or no horse at all,” explained Ms Eh.
“Righto! And I’m giving you a Hobson’s Choice now. Either you shut up about eponyms or you get out of my car,” Eddie said sternly.
And that was the last they heard from Eh Poh Nim for the rest of the journey.
(Reference: A Dictionary of Eponyms by Cyril Leslie Beeching)