Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: The other day, I was working a crossword and encountered a clue that read, “Pioneering hypnotist.” As you would know, his name was Mesmer which, I assume, is the origin of the word mesmerize. Please consider telling the stories of some of other famous names for the benefit of your readers. –Ted Dederick, Carlsbad

In ancient times, the gods snatched up the souls of those mortals who had found favor in their eyes and made them into stars so that they could forever shine in the heavens for humankind to see. Some men and women have likewise been endowed with a measure of immortality by having their names transmuted into everyday words because of a discovery, object, deed or attribute of character associated with them.

The Greeks had a word for people who live on in our everyday conversations —eponymos, from which we derive the word eponym, meaning “after or upon a name.” Thousands of eponyms teem our tongues and dot our dictionaries. Stories of the origins of words made from real or imaginary people are among the richest and most entertaining in our language:

The answer to your crossword clue is indeed Franz Antoine Mesmer. He was a Viennese physician who treated his patients by fixing them with a piercing gaze, questioning them about their ailments and stroking them with a wand. Today, the verb to mesmerize means “to hypnotize, to fascinate.”

In pre-revolutionary France there lived one Etienne de Silhouette, a controller-general for Louis XV. Because of his fanatical zeal for raising taxes and slashing expenses and pensions, he enraged royalty and citizens alike, who ran him out of office within eight months.

At about the same time that the penny-pinching Silhouette was sacked for his infuriating parsimony, the method of making cutouts of profile portraits by throwing the shadow of the subject on the screen captured the fancy of the Paris public. Because the process was cheap and one that cut back to absolute essentials (a scissors and maybe a knife), the man and the method, in the spirit of ridicule, became associated. Ever since, we have called shadow profiles silhouettes, with a lowercase s.

In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, became the inspiration for a political term in our English language. In an effort to sustain his party’s power, Gerry divided his state into electoral districts with more regard to politics than to geographical reality.

To a drawing of one of the governor’s manipulated districts Gilbert Stuart — the same fellow who had painted the famous portrait of George Washington — added a head, eyes, wings and claws. Stuart exclaimed about his creation, “That looks like a salamander!”

“No,” countered the editor of the newspaper in which the cartoon was to appear, “Better call it a gerrymander!”

The verb to gerrymander (with a soft g at the beginning) is still used today to describe the shaping of electoral entities for political gain.

The life and writings of the Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade extolled the pleasures of inflicting sexual pain. The marquis lives on through the word sadism. From Austrian novelist Leopold Sacher-Masoch, whose fictional characters enjoyed receiving pain, we derive the word masochism.

As the sardonic joke goes, the masochist says, “Beat me! Beat me!” And the sadist replies, “No.”

Four noble earls, whom, if I quote,
Some folks might call me sinner.
One name’s a hat, two  names are coats.
The fourth one’s half a dinner.

Edward Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, founded a horse race at Epson Downs. It and many subsequent races bear his name as does the round hat often sported at such events.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, and James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, bequeathed us the Chesterfield and cardigan jackets.

And the fourth earl?: In order to spend more uninterrupted time at the gambling tables, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, ordered his servants to bring him an impromptu meal of slices of beef slapped between two slices of bread. Thus, one of our favorite repasts is named after a compulsive gambler.