I love the English language not just for beauty of it but also for the infinite diversity of its vocabulary and the willingness to adopt new words into it, which make it very much a living language. Many of the words we use on a daily basis, we take for granted without giving a thought to their origins and this little book gives details of some of the men and women who, as the subtitle says 'gave their names to history'.
The author, James Cochrane is a Scot by birth. He states in the brief foreword that he embarked upon the project of writing this book after coming across the name of one Captain Frederick Doldrum whilst reading a naval history book. His curiosity led him to look the name up in the dictionary which gave an explanation of the term doldrums but made absolutely no mention of the unfortunate Captain. The same was true for Lieutenant Edward Awning who also didn't get a mention in the dictionary. After discovering that many of the eponyms he already knew (including that of his own ancestor, Sir Oswald Binge) were missing from the works of even the most reputable lexicographers, Mr Cochrane decided to begin a quest to track down these forgotten people and give them their due credit. He ended his foreword with a warning that he would no longer accept their dismissal of these people with the blanket 'origin obscure' and threatens them with retribution from the ghosts of those they have slighted.
James Cochrane claims this book is the offering of an amateur and that this isn't a definitive work but to my mind, he's a very knowledgeable amateur and in his quest to give the men and women included in his book their due respect, he's produced a highly entertaining little tome detailing some of the eponymous men and women of the world, whose original thinking has led to their names going down in posterity. From Akimbo and Botch to Vertigo and Wink, James Cochrane, informs, entertains and educates.
This isn't a huge book, only 86 pages, and the majority of those included only get a paragraph to describe their fame, or notoriety as the case may be, but James Cochrane packs a lot into those paragraphs some of which will leave you filled with admiration at the entrepreneurial ingenuity of some and in stitches over the disastrous consequences of others. There are quite a few little black and white drawings accompanying the text all with pithy captions. I won't go through the whole book which contains over 90 explanations for the origin of some English eponyms but a couple of the entries are worthy of mention if only to whet your appetite for what's between the covers of this delightful little hardback.
One entrant has the dubious honour of possibly being responsible for two English words. The aforementioned Botch was one Jeremy Botch, a jobbing carpenter who briefly worked on the Pavilion in Brighton until a decorative screen he'd made fell on the Prince Regent and his mistress revealing Jeremy's lack of carpentry skills after which event, the phrase 'a botched job' entered the English language. It's also argued that his forename of Jeremy may account for the description Jerry built, although there are other contenders for that title. And for those of you who think that the Walkman is a modern invention, think again. Otis P Walkman was an American (well, he would be with a name like Otis P) who invented a portable playback device way back in the nineteenth century. As Cochrane tells us 'the technology available at the time was such that the device had to be pulled behind the wearer on a small wheeled cart'. His name could well have been consigned to obscurity had Sony not resurrected the idea some 150 years later.
How many of you watching Anne Robinson wish us goodnight after Watchdog have ever wondered how the word 'wink' came into being? Or, indeed, why 'wink' is the same word in both English and German. The reason is that Friedrich von Wink, Bavarian ambassador at the court of King George III, introduced into England his native custom of closing one eye whenever he made a witty or ironic remark. This action was quickly picked up by young English noblemen of the day despite being condemned by Beau Brummell as being ill-bred. In reality, we should all be 'vinking' but in true British tradition, we absorbed the word into our own language and gave it our own pronunciation.
Originally retailing at £7.99, a used copy can now be picked up for 1p plus postage. This is the kind of book that someone is likely to read only once or twice and if you can track down a copy that is in 'as new' condition, this would make a great stocking filler for anyone with an etymological bent. It's packed full of interesting little histories of people you never knew existed all described in a lively, entertaining and informative way.
A directory of eccentric inventors and originators throughout history. The essential companion for anyone who has ever wondered about the origins of many of the more puzzling words in English: why do people wink, who first came up with "walkman", are cartels a recent Thatcherite phenomenon?