GRE Eponyms

An eponym is any word that is derived from a person’s name.

In the past, I’ve mentioned how English is the most promiscuous of languages, absorbing languages as unrelated as Sanskrit and Finnish into its bulging lexicon. By extension, I’ve also mentioned how relying on Latin/Greek roots can oftentimes cripple your word detective skills. Thwarting a root-based approach even more is the fact that English not only takes from any language it stumbles across, but that it blithely appropriates a person’s name, trimming a few letters here and there (adding the Latin –ian, or -esque for true mongrel effect), and then begetting a Franken-word that would confound a seasoned etymologist.

Adapting a name in such a fashion results in an eponym. What makes eponyms fascinating—and even more random—is that just about anyone can bequeath the world his or her name: a fictional anti-hero who thought windmills were dragons; a jingoistic veteran of Napoleon’s army; an author with a penchant for absurdity, and an aversion to bureaucracy.

Of course, for GRE purposes we do not need to know that a jeroboam is a massive wine bottle named for an ancient Israeli king (who apparently was quite the wino). So I have culled from a list of eponyms those that may actually show up test day.



Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician prominent the turn of the 19th century, was renowned for hypnotizing people. His method included kneeling near a patient, touching his/her knees and looking into the person’s eyes (I’m curious if he ever proposed to one of his clients).

Today, we have the word mesmerize, which doesn’t necessarily mean to hypnotize (though it could), but is used figuratively and means to hold spellbound.

The plot and the characters were so well developed that many viewers were mesmerized, unable to move their eyes from the screen for even a single second.



No, this word does not pertain to a large salamander name Gerry – though I suppose it could. Gerrymander is actually far more interesting than that.

Elbridge Gerry was the vice president of James Madison, the 4th president of the United States. Elbridge had an interesting idea. To get elected a president had to win a certain number of districts. So Elbridge came up with the following plan: if he partitioned a city in a certain way he could ensure that the president would win the majority of the votes from that district.

The end result was a city that was split up into the oddest arrangement of districts. And can you guess what a map of the city, gerrymandered, looked like? Yep, a salamander.

Today the use of gerrymander hasn’t changed too much, and refers to the manipulation of boundaries to favor a certain group.



If you remember reading Homer’s Iliad, you may remember Hector, a muscular, daunting force. (Some of you may more vividly recall Eric Bana from the movie Troy). As people were intimidated around Hector, it makes sense that the word hector means to bully or intimidate.

The boss’s hectoring manner put off many employees, some of whom quit as soon as they found a new job.



Like Hector, Pollyannaish comes from fiction. However, in this case we are dealing with a relatively recent work, that of Eleanor Porter, who came up with a character named Pollyanna. Pollyanna was extremely optimistic, and so it should be no surprise that Pollyannaish means extremely optimistic.

Even in the midst of a lousy sales quarter, Debbie remained Pollyannaish, never losing her shrill voice and wide smile, even when people hung up on her.



Many have heard this word, and some may even have a visceral reaction to the word. However, this word is actually misused. A chauvinist is not a male who chugs beers, watches too much football, and demeans women. That would be a male chauvinist. So what is a chauvinist, unadorned by any adjective?

Well, Nicolas Chauvin, a one-time recruit in Napoleon’s army, used to go about town, thumping his chest about how great France was. In its modern day incantation, chauvinism means anyone who thinks that their group is better than anybody else’s group. You can have male chauvinists, political party chauvinists, and even female chauvinists.



King Pyrrhus had the unfortunate luck of going up against the Romans. Some would say that he was actually lucky in that he actually defeated the Romans in the Battle of Asculum. Pyrrhic was perhaps more ambivalent, quipping, “One more such victory will undo me.”

So any win that comes at so great a cost that it is not even worth it is a pyrrhic victory.



By day, Franz Kafka filed papers at an insurance office; by night, he churned out dark novels, which suggested that the quotidian world of the office was actually far more sinister. Mainly, his novels were known for the absurd predicaments of their main characters (who often went by nothing more than a single initial).

Today, we have the word Kafkaesque, that refers to the absurdity we have to deal with living in a world of faceless bureaucracies. So next time you are put on hold for three hours and then volleyed back in forth between a dozen monotone-voice employees, think to yourself, hey this is Kafkaesque.



Don Quixote is perhaps one of the most well known characters in all of literature. I suppose there is something heartbreaking yet comical at a man past his prime who believes he is on some great mission to save the world. In fact, Don Quixote was so far off his rocker that he thought windmills were dragons.

As a word that means somebody who mistakes windmills for dragons would have a severely limited application, quixotic has taken the broader meaning of someone who is wildly idealistic. It is one thing to want to help end world hunger; it is another to think you can do so on your own. The latter would be deemed quixotic.



Mary Madgalene was the most important female disciple of Jesus. After Jesus had been crucified, she wept at his tomb.

From this outward outpouring of emotion, we today have the word maudlin. Whereas Mary’s weeping was noble, maudlin has taken on a negative tinge. A person who is maudlin cries in public for no good reason, and is oftentimes times used to describe one who’s tried to finish a jeroboam alone, and now must share with the stranger sitting next to them all of his deepest feelings.


Interestingly, there is another eponym for literature that has a very similar meaning: Panglossian. Derived from Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, Panglossian carries a negative connotation, implying blind optimism.

Despite the fact that his country had been marred by a protracted civil war, Victor remained ever Panglossian, claiming that his homeland was living through a Golden Age.



Nope, I have not spelled protein incorrectly (don’t worry—carbohydrates will not show up next on the list!). Protean is an eponym derived from the Greek god Proteus, he who could change into shape or forms at will. To be protean, however, does not mean you wow party guests by shifting into various kinds of lawn furniture. The consummate adaptability implied by the word is used to describe a person’s ability. So an actor, musician, or writer who is very versatile is protean.

Peter Sellers was truly a protean actor—in Doctor Strangelove he played three very different roles: a jingoist general, a sedate President and a deranged scientist.



This is definitely one of my favorite eponyms. While the provenance is nowhere nearly as interesting as those of other eponyms, the word perfectly describes a lapse that any of us is capable of making, especially those studying for the GRE.

Ms. Malaprop was a character in a play called The Rivals by the largely forgotten Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She was known for mixing up similar sounding words, usually to comic effect.Indeed, she would utter the words with such complete aplomb that those listening were unsure if she’d even mixed up words in the first place. Her favorite Spanish dance was the flamingo (note: the dance in question is the flamenco; a flamingo is a salmon-colored bird known both for its elegance and tackiness).

GRE malapropisms aren’t quite so silly as Ms. Malaprop mixing up a bird and a Spanish dance, but I’ll do my best. See if you can spot the GRE malapropisms below.

The graffiti artist was indicated for defecating the church with gang signs.

Picasso was a protein artist, able to mix elements of African art with the oven guard.



We’ve all heard of the Nazis. Some of you may have even heard of the Vichy government, which was a puppet regime set up by the Nazis inFrance during WWII. Few of us, however, know that Germany also tried to turn Norway into a puppet regime. In order for Germany to take over Norway, it needed an inside man, a Norwegian who would sell his country out for the Nazis.

This man was Viktor Quisling. For arrant perfidy, he has been awarded the eponym quisling, which means traitor.



Okay, I cheated a little on this one. Byzant was not a medieval philosopher (nor an industrious ant). The word ‘byzantine’ is not derived from a person’s name, but from Byzantium, an ancient city that was part of the Byzantine Empire (the word can also refer to the empire itself). Specifically, Byzantium was known for the intricate patterns adorning its architecture. Bulbous domed turrets were emblazoned with ornate latticing (think of the towers on a Russia church).

The modern usage of byzantine refers not to architecture per se, but to anything that is extremely intricate and complex. It actually carries a negative connotation.

Getting a driver’s license is not simply a matter of taking a test; the regulations and procedures are so byzantine that many have find themselves at the mercy of the DMV. 



Like many late 18th Century scientists, Luigi Galvani was fascinated with electricity (you may recall a certain Ben Franklin who had a similar penchant). Galvani’s breakthrough came a little more serendipitously than playing with metal in lightning storms—he noticed that an electric current passing through a dead frog’s legs made those legs twitch. This observation sparked—pardon the pun—a series of connections: could it be that electric shock could cause muscles to twitch?

Today, galvanize can mean to shock but in a different sense than through raw electricity. To galvanize is to shock or urge somebody/something into action.

The colonel’s speech galvanized the troops, who had all but given up. 



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