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Eponyms: Examples of Words from the Napoleonic Era

June 25th, 2007

Eponyms are words that denote objects, events, or concepts that have been named after real people. The following three examples have come to us from the Napoleonic Era, the historical period between the French Revolution of 1789 and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. As one may deduce from the eponyms that were derived during this relatively short time span, it was one of the most turbulent periods in European history.

After the Revolution of 1789, France’s government underwent an extremely chaotic, unstable period known as the “Reign of Terror”, in which both the type of government and the country’s leaders were being overthrown on an almost weekly basis. This situation produced many public executions. At the time, executions were sometimes performed with a louisette, an instrument that consisted of a weighted blade that slides down vertical posts and quickly decapitates its victim. During the Revolution, a member of the Constituent Assembly, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, urged the new government to adopt the louisette as a swift and humane means of carrying out executions. Consequently, due to its widespread use, the device was quickly renamed the guillotine. Ironically, Monsieur Guillotin would later regret this little historical anecdote when, in the months of June and July of 1792, more than a thousand people would lose their heads to the infamous device that now bore his name.

After the Reign of Terror finally calmed down, France’s desperate search for a source of stability and national pride led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the creation of the First Republic. As a soldier in the French army, Nicolas Chauvin not only welcomed Napoleon as a leader, but also was fanatically devoted to him and praised him at almost every opportunity. His extreme sense of loyalty toward Napoleon and his country became the source of many jokes, and eventually became known to the French as chauvinisme. Today, the words “chauvinism” or “chauvinist” are used to describe a person who is fanatically patriotic or rigidly convinced of the superiority of his own group, as in the phrase “male chauvinist pig”.

Meanwhile, as France was embroiled in wars on the European continent, England was seeking to expand its colonial empire in the Caribbean. During an attack on the Dutch colonial territory of Surinam in 1802, Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel invented a device that was then called a “spherical case shot”, which consisted of a round container filled with gunpowder and musket balls. This kind of artillery shell would prove to be a very effective anti-personnel weapon because the shell would explode on impact, spraying musket balls or other tiny metal fragments in all directions, causing many enemy casualties. These tiny metal fragments came to be known as “shrapnel”. This kind of flying debris is often responsible for the collateral damage that is inflicted upon civilian populations during times of war.

One Response to “Eponyms: Examples of Words from the Napoleonic Era”

  1. comment number 1 by: Anonymous

    what is eponym?

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