Cover image for What's in a name? : how proper names became everyday words
What's in a name? : how proper names became everyday words
Ehrlich, Eugene, 1922-2008.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : H. Holt, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 238 pages ; 25 cm
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Material Type
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Central Library PE1596 .E38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Delves into the entertaining stories behind common words, mining the past to find historical and literary figures who have lent their names to keep the English language vibrant and exciting. Alphabetical entries trace the history of words and their progenitors, such as Louis Braille, Baron Munchausen, and the Marquis de Sade. Fun for word buffs, history lovers, and trivia pursuers. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Author Notes

Eugene Ehrlich is co-editor of the "Oxford American Dictionary" & author of numerous books on language, including "You've Got Ketchup on Your Muumuu: An A-to-Z Guide to English Words from Around the World". A former professor of English at Columbia University, he lives in Mamaroneck, NY.

(Publisher Provided) Word connoisseur Eugene Ehrlich was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1922. He attended the City College of New York where he studied languages and education. After graduating, he served in the army as an interrogator of Japanese prisoners. Afterwards, he did graduate work at Teachers College of Columbia University, taught at Farleigh-Dickinson University, worked as a verbal presentation consultant at Bell Labs, taught part time at Columbia University School of General Studies, and was a consultant for defense contractors.

His first book, How to Study Better and Get Higher Marks, was published in 1961. He wrote over 40 dictionaries, thesauruses and phrase books. His works included The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate, Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout le Monde with Everyday French, and You've Got Ketchup on Your Muumuu: An A-to-Z Guide to English Words From Around the World. He died on April 5, 2008 at the age of 85.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Ehrlich and Elster offer the entertainment afforded by words named after proper nouns and words pronounced in all manner of ways. Ehrlich recounts names that have insinuated themselves into English. Some betray their source by remaining capitalized; others hide in the herd of lowercased natural words--an example is laconic. It originated, Ehrlich explains, in the ancient Spartan territory of Laconia, with the warning issued to its residents by Philip of Macedon: "If I enter Laconia, I will level Lacedaemon [Sparta] to the ground." The Spartans returned a one-word reply: "If." Replete with such amusements, Ehrlich's list ambles through people words both in common use (diesel) and in unavoidable use, as Avogadro's number is for suffering chemistry students. Indeed, science jargon is dominated by scientists, just as the argot of the gustatory and bibulous arts is well represented by their practitioners. They, however, tend to be fictional, and though one searches Ehrlich's book in vain for Harvey Wallbanger, Tom Collins is present and in good cheer. So pour yourself either drink (when off library premises) and enjoy Ehrlich's breezy browser. Elster is comedio-serious about proper pronunciation. Say Celtic with a hard "c" , and Elster's disdain (and that of Celtic fans) is your lot. Cruising the Caribbean? If Elster is your deck book, you won't stress that sea's second syllable for long. Imps elsewhere will learn how to instigate an argument in the Show Me State, as Elster furnishes the story of two uncompromisable ways to say Missouri. These light lexicographical jeremiads (Bible class truants, see Ehrlich) integrate the ghostly authority of dictionaries past and will pleasantly inform all who work with words. --Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

Ehrlich is the author of at least six other books on language, notably Amo, Amas, Amat and More (LJ 5/1/85). Here he defines some 550 words, ranging from Achilles heel to spoonerisms, that come from names of persons celebrated for their contributions to medicine, science, business, academia, or entertainment. Unlike similar books, this one includes words that originate in the names of mythological and literary characters. Each entry includes the part of speech, related forms, and a short definition as well as lengthy historical background. The entries are entertaining, often ending with a humorous "kick line." This is a great book for the browser, but its reference value is compromised by its lack of indexing. It is one of a small crowd of popular dictionaries of eponyms that have appeared recently, among them Andrew Sholl's Wellingtons, Watts & Windsor Knots (NTC Pub., 1997), David Muschell's What's in the Word?: Origins of Words Dealing with People and Places (McGuinn & McGuire, 1996), Morton Freeman and Edwin Newman's New Dictionary of Eponyms (Oxford Univ., 1997), and Dorothy Auchter's Dictionary of Historical Allusions & Eponyms (LJ 8/98). Auchter's title is probably the best of the bunch.‘Paul A. D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt A Aaron's rod Any of various long-stemmed flowering plants, for example, goldenrod and mullein. In a biblical context, a miraculous rod that blossomed and bore almonds over a single night. As one might expect, the Aaron of Aaron's miraculous rod was the brother of Moses and assisted him in leading the children of Israel through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. The Book of Numbers relates the role played by Aaron's rod in quenching hostility shown by dissident Israelites toward the leadership of Moses in the wilderness. But on to the story related in Numbers. In the interest of unifying support for Moses, the Lord ordered that twelve rods be cut, one for each of the Israelite families, and that the name of each of the twelve assembled princes of the families be written on them. "And it shall come to pass that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall bud: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you." Moses laid all twelve rods in a row "in the tent of the testimony" and on the next day he went into the tent. "Behold, the rod of Aaron ... was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. And Moses brought out all the rods ... unto all the children of Israel." The demonstration of Aaron's rod had its desired effect on the dissidents, and the murmurings ceased. In Exodus we encounter another Aaron's rod, also miraculous. The venue this time is Egypt, and the situation also calls for a display of the strength of the Lord. When Moses and Aaron have to respond to Pharaoh's demand for a miraculous demonstration, they are told that Aaron must take his rod and "cast it down before the Pharaoh and before his servants." And what happens next? The rod is transformed into a serpent. Pharaoh thereupon called his wise men and sorcerers together and told them to match Aaron's feat. Sure enough, all the sorcerers "cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents." But then "Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods." The children of Israel were one step closer to gaining their freedom. It is also worth mentioning that Aaron's serpent is sometimes used in English to denote something so powerful as to swallow up lesser competitors--for example, a predatory corporation always ready to gobble up weaker companies. A lesson for gardeners: If you do not have a green thumb, discard your compost and your mulches, your fertilizers and your watering cans, and put your faith in the Lord. Abbe condenser In optics a combination of two or three lenses having a large aperture and used as a light gatherer for a compound microscope. Such an optical condenser collects and concentrates light in a specified direction. The Abbe condenser is named for the German physicist and industrialist Ernst Abbe (1840-1905), who was research director and partner in the famous optical works of Carl Zeiss and became owner of the firm on the death of Zeiss in 1888. Abelian An adjective characterizing a mathematical structure for which operations are commutative--that is, able to be performed in any order. In an Abelian group, for example, a + b = b + a . The term is named for the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrick Abel (1802-1829), who is known best for proving--when he was twenty-one years old--that a fifth-degree equation cannot be solved algebraically For about two centuries previously, mathematicians had searched in vain for general methods for solving such equations. Abel was more than able. abigail A lady's maid. The biblical Abigail, in 1 Samuel a woman "of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance," was the wife of a wealthy man. When Abigail's husband died not long after she first met David, David took her as a wife. And from then on, Abigail repeatedly referred to herself as David's handmaid, "a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord." (This was before the emancipation of women.) The word abigail came into English in the seventeenth century, when Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher in their play The Scornful Lady named one of the play's characters Abigail, characterizing her as a "waiting gentlewoman." The name was picked up by the novelists Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and others. It has also been suggested that the political notoriety of one Abigail Hill, a royal favorite and lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne, did much to popularize the name Abigail. Soon enough, abigail came into use with the meaning of "lady's maid," even giving rise to the awkward word abigailship to denote the condition of an abigail. As might be expected, this infelicitous word has been lost from English. English changes too rapidly to keep useless words in its active file. Abraham's bosom Heaven; the reward of the righteous. Think of Abraham's bosom as the place where you, as one of the blessed dead, will eventually reside once your allotted time on earth has expired. Abraham's bosom alludes to an ancient custom of permitting a dear friend to recline on one's bosom, as did John on the bosom of Jesus. And we read in Luke that when a beggar named Lazarus died, "he was carried away by the angels into Abraham's bosom." It is a comforting thought to dwell on while tuning out the droning of a less-than-accomplished eulogist at the next less-than-inspiring funeral oration you sit through. according to Cocker In Britain, a phrase meaning correctly or exactly; especially, according to established rules. See also according to Gunter and according to Hoyle. Edward Cocker (1631-1675) was a London engraver who also taught mathematics and penmanship, and was said to have been the author of the popular Cocker's Arithmetick . The book, published posthumously in 1678, became known for its accuracy and went through 112 editions. So, invoking Cocker's name to support one's interpretation of the rules of arithmetic became the equivalent of citing Scripture for the rules of morality and the like. Ironically, the editor and publisher of Cocker's Arithmetick subsequently exposed the work as an inaccurate forgery. Even pure science isn't without human corruption. according to Gunter A phrase once popular in the United States, meaning carefully and correctly done, implying unquestionable correctness. Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) was an English mathematician and astronomer who is remembered for his contributions to trigonometry and, especially, for his inventions of measuring instruments. His reputation for reliability made according to Gunter the equivalent of according to Cocker (which see). according to Hoyle A phrase meaning according to accepted rules; according to the highest authority. Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769) was an English authority on card games, whose first publication was a treatise on the rules of whist. He went on to compile rules of other games as well, including backgammon and chess, and these rules were gathered in his Hoyle's Standard Games (1748). To this day his name is invoked as the last word on the rules of any card game, and also more broadly on the rules governing all human behavior. Thus we may hear, "I'm not sure the special prosecutor did everything according to Hoyle." Does any public official? Achates A bosom pal; more formally, a faithful companion. Achates, the chosen companion of Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid , is characterized in Latin as fidus Achates , faithful Achates, a man of unswerving fidelity. And if Achates was good enough for Aeneas--said to have been the founder of the Roman nation--any Achates you meet should be treasured if you value true friendship. And who doesn't? Achillean. See Achilles heel. Achilles heel Also given as Achilles' heel, any vulnerable spot in the character of an otherwise estimable person, nation, or other institution. For example, one might say, "Excessive fondness for rich desserts has surely been my Achilles heel" or "Inadequate financing proved the Achilles heel of the struggling corporation." Achilles was the great Greek warrior of the Trojan War, celebrated in Homer's Iliad . His father was Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, in Thessaly. The singular form of Myrmidons was taken into English as myrmidon (which see). Achilles' mother was Thetis, a sea nymph and one of fifty daughters of Nereus. Because Nereus was a very old man--how could the father of fifty daughters be anything else?--he was called The Old Man of the Sea. Incidentally, a character called The Old Man of the Sea appears in "Sinbad the Sailor," a tale told in The Arabian Nights' Entertainments (see also Aladdin's lamp). That pesky old man clung uninvited to Sinbad's shoulders, much to Sinbad's discomfort, who finally managed to get the old man drunk and do away with him. Old Man of the Sea in time became an English phrase and is used to this day to mean a burden, actual or imagined, of which it is impossible to free oneself without extraordinary efforts. We all know such burdens. But back to Achilles and ancient Greece. A post-Homeric legend related that Thetis, the mother of Achilles, held her infant son by the heel and dipped him in the waters of the river Styx to render his body invulnerable to injury. Thetis's hand unfortunately covered Achilles' heel during the immersion, and his heel went unprotected. As Achilles matured, it became clear that the Stygian waters had accomplished what Thetis knew they would. Achilles was found to be protected against all the inevitable injuries of childhood and, in his maturity, proved able to emerge unscathed from his many battles. Until one fateful day during his leadership of Greek forces in the siege of Troy. It was then that a Trojan prince named Paris let fly an arrow that found its way to Achilles. And where did the arrow strike the Greek warrior? In his unprotected heel, of course, thus inflicting a mortal wound and giving English Achilles heel, Achilles reflex (which see), and Achilles tendon (which see), as well as the rarely used adjective Achillean, taken to mean invulnerable and invincible in addition to meaning resembling Achilles. For those who may not remember, Paris had earlier eloped with Helen of Troy, the beautiful but married daughter of Zeus. This illicit romance has been taken as the proximate cause of the Trojan War, so to no one's surprise the vengeful gods did their thing--Paris was himself soon struck by a poisoned arrow and died. (Talk about tit for tat!) So love does not always conquer all, and we are left with two lessons for overprotective parents: Guard your little darlings against injury, but be forewarned that you will not always succeed, and think twice before allowing your daughter to run off on her own--to or with Paris. Achilles reflex Also given as Achilles' reflex and sometimes known as ankle jerk, in humans a reflex extension of the foot, caused by contraction of the muscles of the calf following a sharp tap on the Achilles tendon (which see). (See also Babinski's reflex.) Achilles tendon Also given as Achilles' tendon, the strong band of tissue in humans attaching the fleshy part of the heel with the calf muscles. (See Achilles heel and Babinski's reflex.) Adam's apple Adam, everyone's ancestor, said by some to have lived in Paradise for only twelve hours before being cast out, gave his name to a prominent feature of the human male anatomy. And why was he cast out of Paradise? He acted in defiance of an instruction not to eat a certain apple. But Adam did eat the apple, and you know the rest. For our purposes, the most interesting part of the legend of Adam is that a piece of the apple stuck in his throat, giving us an apt name for the protuberance in the forefront of the throat that all men know to this day. Breathes there a man or woman who knows a more succinct and technically correct name for what we all call Adam's apple, the projection of thyroid cartilage of the larynx? Write or call if you do. Addisonian Since there have been two famous Addisons in English history, there are two separate meanings of the adjective Addisonian. Writing is considered Addisonian if it is unusually clear and polished, with lengthy, well-balanced sentences. This characterization comes from the style of essays written by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) for their gossipy and moral periodical the Spectator . The other sense of Addisonian refers to the condition known as Addison's disease. Read on. Addison's disease When the outer part of the adrenal glands--tiny caps on the kidneys--produces insufficient hormones, the condition known as Addison's disease may result. One possible reason for such insufficiency is underactivity of the pituitary. The symptoms of Addison's disease include weakness, fatigue, brown spots on the skin, weight loss, low blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems. Fortunately, if properly diagnosed, Addison's disease can be treated and its symptoms completely eliminated by a lifetime program of medications taken orally that restore hormone balance. Named after Dr. Thomas Addison (1793-1860), an English physician. Basing his work primarily on observations made during autopsies, Addison recognized in 1849 that the symptoms he observed were connected to degeneration of the caps on the kidneys. The cause of the then fatal syndrome was unknown, since discovery of hormones was still more than half a century away. Although Addison's disease is rare today, it is thought by some to have influenced events in American history, in that President John F. Kennedy suffered from the disease while he held office but kept his condition secret from the general public. Since his condition was diagnosed and treated, however, it should have had no effect on his energy or ability to make decisions. But that doesn't stop conspiracy theorists from doing their thing. Adlerian As a noun, an Adlerian is a disciple of Alfred Adler, a pioneering Austrian psychologist (1870-1937) and prominent member of the psychoanalytical group that formed around Sigmund Freud (see Freudian). Adler moved to the United States in 1932 to teach, and is remembered today primarily for opening the first child guidance clinic in Vienna, in 1921, and for his introduction of the well-known term inferiority complex . As an adjective, Adlerian characterizes Adler and his teachings, especially his belief that behavior is determined by compensation for feelings of inferiority. Admirable Crichton Any person distinguished by all-round talents, somewhat like a person we are apt to call--loosely, to be sure--a Renaissance man, but nothing at all like a down-market jack-of-all-trades. Also thought of today as signifying a perfect butler. The original Admirable Crichton was James Crichton (1560-1585), a Scottish scholar, poet, linguist, and swordsman. Considered a prodigy and said to have been fluent in twelve languages, he was known as "the Admirable." Crichton met an untimely death in a brawl with the son of the Mantuan duke whom he served. After Crichton's death, he was portrayed as the ideal man in a panegyric on the Scottish nation written by Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660) and entitled The Exquisite Jewel . We are indebted forever to Urquhart's fantastic account of the Admirable Crichton's exploits and the impetus it gave to Admirable Crichton as a splendid contribution to the English tongue. But there is more to the literary history of Admirable Crichton. William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), an English historical novelist, published his novel The Admirable Crichton in 1837, and J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), a Scottish novelist and playwright, staged his play The Admirable Crichton in 1902. Barrie's play, still performed, is a social satire in which Crichton is a remarkably talented butler always ready with well-timed machinations that succeed in resolving all problems of the plot. (Not unlike the valet Jeeves, whom readers know in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, 1881-1975.) It is because of Barrie that modern readers think of an Admirable Crichton as a synonym for a jewel of a butler. Adonis Any strikingly handsome young man. For example, "Our neighborhood Adonis struck fear in the hearts of all mothers of adolescent girls." But when a man of some years is sneeringly referred to as an Adonis, the word denotes an old codger who hasn't looked at a mirror in a long time and so thinks of himself as a lady-killer. In classical mythology Adonis was a youth whose beauty earned him the love of Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and goddess of beauty and love. The better-known Venus, identified with Aphrodite, is in Roman mythology the goddess of beauty and sensual love, as well as of gardens and spring. As everyone knows, the name Venus (which see), has come into English to mean a living doll, more conventionally an exceptionally beautiful woman. But back to Adonis. While out hunting one day, Adonis was slain by a wild boar, but Zeus saw to it that the young man's career did not end there. Instead, by one account, Zeus permitted him from then on to spend four months each year with Persephone, who was the Greek goddess of the infernal regions and was called Proserpine or Proserpina by the Romans. Zeus also permitted Adonis to spend four months a year with Aphrodite, and the remaining four months with anyone he chose. So, while Adonis may not have been an entirely successful hunter, when it came to good looks he didn't have to take a backseat to anyone. His name to this day gives us a reliable way of describing a young man of exceptionally good looks as well as enabling us to wax sardonic in referring to an older man whose conquests lie primarily in the past. Where they belong. Aeaea. See Circe. Aeolian An adjective with two definitions. As aeolian it means windblown, but as Aeolian it means pertaining to Aeolus--Greek god of the winds--or to winds in general. An Aeolian harp, also called a wind harp, is a stringed instrument resembling a zither, with strings of equal length and tuned to the same note. When exposed to the wind, the strings vibrate, producing a series of chords. Which are always worth hearing. Aesculapian An adjective, also given as Esculapian, meaning pertaining to Aesculapius; now meaning pertaining to the healing art; medicinal. One might say, "Anne is master of the Aesculapian art." Aesculapius was the Roman god of medicine and a son of Apollo. He was based on the ancient Greek Asclepius, or Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and of healing. The name Aesculapius has been used figuratively in English to mean physician. And since the customary offering to the god Apollo was sacrifice of a rooster, in England an old way of saying pay a doctor's bill was to say sacrifice a cock to Aesculapius . All this, of course, before the introduction of those seemingly innumerable HMOs. Airy disc A bright circular region that is the center of a series of luminous rings produced by diffraction of a point of light, usually the light from a star. The Airy disc was named for an English astronomer, Sir George Biddell Airy (1801-1892). Airy was famously unlucky, best known for ignoring the calculations presented to him by a fellow English astronomer, John Couch Adams (1819-1892). Adams had deduced mathematically the existence and location of the planet Neptune. Soon enough the location was computed by a French astronomer, Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier (1811-1877), employing what was essentially a French version of the same calculations Adams had offered Airy. And a few days later, in 1846, Neptune was actually discovered by a German astronomer, Johann Gottfried Galle (1812-1910). The English finally forgave Airy for losing out in the competition to be first in finding Neptune, and he was knighted more than a quarter of a century after his famous error. Not exactly noblesse oblige. Aladdin's lamp From the name of a lucky young man and a wondrous artifact central to a story in The Arabian Nights' Entertainments , a collection of ancient Persian-Indian-Arabian tales dating from about 1450, known also as A Thousand and One Nights . It was translated into many European languages beginning in 1704. The phrase Aladdin's lamp has come to mean a source of wealth and good luck. The tales of The Arabian Nights' Entertainments are told night after night by Scheherazade, the latest bride of a certain Sultan Schahriah, a man who believes all wives are unfaithful. His solution is simplicity itself: Take and enjoy a new bride each day and have her strangled at daybreak. Knowing this, Scheherazade, a gifted storyteller, conceives of a way to stave off her execution. Each night she launches into a story that will intrigue the Sultan, but breaks off just before the climax of the story. What the Sultan does not realize is that Scheherazade also makes sure the Sultan can overhear her telling her sister the beginning of the next night's story. As a result the Sultan is eager to let his bride live until the next day so he can learn the denouement of the interrupted story, as well as the entire story to be told on the following night. This goes on for 1,001 nights, when the Sultan finally disavows his intention to execute Scheherazade. But what about Aladdin? In "Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp," a Chinese lad named Aladdin obtains a magical lamp. He discovers its power when he happens to rub the lamp, whereupon two genies appear and promise to do his bidding. Through their good offices he becomes enormously wealthy and, after a complex series of ups and downs--grist for Scheherazade's story mill--settles down to enjoy life in his own palace. So we learn from this that Aladdin profited from an occasional rub, and that even sultans love a good story. Alberti bass In music, especially in eighteenth-century rococo compositions, a type of bass accompaniment consisting of arpeggios, also known as broken chords. The Alberti bass is named for an Italian musician, Domenico Alberti (1710-1740), born in Venice and known for his harpsichord sonatas. His music today is virtually forgotten. aldrin A white crystalline chlorinated hydrocarbon used as an insecticide. The name is appropriate because aldrin is made using a process called the Diels-Alder reaction, an important method for synthesizing organic compounds by forming a ring of atoms. The pesticide is named for Kurt Alder (1902-1958), a German organic chemist who was the junior partner of the Diels-Alder reaction. He and his former boss, Otto Diels (1876-1954), shared the 1950 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on the reaction named for them. alexandrite A variety of the gemstone chrysoberyl, of interesting properties. Alexandrite was discovered in 1833 and named for the future Russian czar Alexander II (1818-1881). Although green in sunlight, alexandrite has the odd property of appearing red in artificial light. Since green and red were the colors of the Russian Imperial Army, the gem became highly popular in nineteenth-century Russia. Doesn't take much to please some people. Alfvén wave A type of oscillation of plasma particles. A plasma is an electrified gas, generally considered by modern scientists to be a fourth state of matter. Although plasmas can exist only at very high temperatures--and therefore are rare on Earth--they are actually the most common state of matter in the universe as a whole. In 1942 the Swedish theoretical physicist Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (born in 1908) predicted that characteristic waves, now called Alfvén waves, would develop in plasmas. The waves were later observed during work on development of fusion power. Alfvén received a share of the 1970 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the dynamics of plasmas in magnetic fields. Algaroth powder An emetic in the form of a white powder. Named after Vittorio Algarotto (died 1604), a physician of Verona, Italy, who devised the Algaroth powder, based on antimony. It was a popular emetic in the seventeenth century but is no longer used for that purpose. Yet Algarotto is not forgotten because Algaroth powder reacts with cream of tartar to produce the compound tartar emetic, which is still used in medicine. A word must be said about antimony, an element with properties similar to those of arsenic but not quite as poisonous. Antimony was known to the ancients as it sometimes occurs in nature, but about the time of Algarotto it was for the first time derived from ore. When you consider how helpful an emetic can be, we must keep the lexicographic welcome mat out for Algaroth powder. Alice blue A pale greenish-blue color. Named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1960), daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Long a prominent Washington social figure and political hostess, she is recalled by people older than us in a song that made much of a pretty young woman who wore a sweet little Alice blue gown when she first wandered down into town. Alice-in-Wonderland Meaning unreal, totally impractical, totally absurd. The term derives from events described in two highly regarded books written by Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), an Oxford mathematician: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). In the first of these books, Alice falls down a rabbit hole into a strange country where everything happens with a disturbing illogicality. In the second book, Alice climbs through a mirror and discovers that everything is reversed. Lewis Carroll has given us a marvelous insight into the thinking of modern politicians struggling to balance national budgets: When they consider that expenditures are too high, their solution is to increase expenditures further. Alzheimer's disease Alzheimer's, as this serious disease is often called, causes loss of short-term memory and, over time, loss of so many other mental functions that persons with this condition become completely dependent on others for their care. They eventually die from loss of brain function. As early as 1906, the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) observed the characteristic brain abnormalities of the disease that would be named for him. Not until recent years, however, have physicians learned to recognize behavior patterns characteristic of the disease in living patients. Perhaps the best-known person whose Alzheimer's disease has been recognized in his lifetime is former president Ronald Wilson Reagan (born 1911). Because Alzheimer's patients are often over sixty-five, many of us tend to think the disease is an inevitable and natural part of aging. It is not. Healthy persons can remain intellectually active and alert throughout their lives, experiencing little more than a slight drop in mental agility as they age. Just like the rest of us on Monday morning. Amati Any one of the premier violins extant that were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by members of the Amati family of Cremona, Italy. Andrea Amati (c.1510-c.1578) is considered the founder of the Cremona school of violin making, setting the style for his family's instruments and, with modifications by Stradivari (see Stradivarius), for all modern violins. Amati's sons Antonio (c.1540-c.1638) and Girolamo (1561-1630), known as the brothers Amati, made violas and violoncellos--cellos--in addition to violins. Nicolò (1596-1684), Girolamo's son, was a teacher of Stradivari and of Andreas Guarneri (which see) and improved the violin further. Nicolò's son Girolamo (1649-1740) was the last of the family to achieve distinction in the world of violin making. By that time, perhaps the violin genes got tired. America People all over the world understand the nouns America and American and the adjective American; they also understand, albeit of several interpretations, the verb Americanize. A smaller group of people readily grasp the meanings of Americana, Americanism, and Americanist. Whether we associate America with North, South, Central, Latin, Middle, or merely with the United States; or whether we attach American to African, Asian, Cuban, French, German, Irish, Jewish, Polish, and a host of other designations, one thing we do know: Everybody wants to get into the act. And in the end all the many things and persons that get their names from America and American appear to owe a debt to Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), a man whose origins epitomize the American experience. He was born in Italy, became a naturalized Spaniard, and made several voyages to the New World while in the service of the king of Portugal. Americus, the Latinized form of his given name, is believed to have first been attached to him by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller (c.1480-c.1521), who used an account of Vespucci's travels to publish, in 1507, a map and globe showing the name Americus . Two additional items of interest: The account of Vespucci's travels used by Waldseemüller was forged. And scholars do not agree that this account of the origin of America is entirely true. Ames test A test for carcinogenic properties using a culture of microorganisms. Named for the American biologist Bruce N. Ames (born 1928), who developed the Ames test as a quick way to test a substance for carcinogenic properties. This test was especially welcome because it is difficult and expensive to test a newly synthesized chemical for possible cancer-causing potential in mammals, even in relatively short-lived, fast-breeding mice or rats. Ironically, after gaining celebrity for his test, Ames became the leading exponent of the idea that most cancer-causing chemicals are natural substances found in food rather than synthetic chemicals of the type usually tested for cancer-causing potential. Will All-Natural, No Chemicals lose out to All-Chemical, No Natural? It boggles the mind. Amish The name given to a conservative sect of followers of Jakob Ammann, also spelled Amann and Amen (c.1645-c.1730), a Swiss Mennonite bishop, who separated from the Mennonites in Switzerland and Alsace in the late seventeenth century and went on to establish Amish communities in North America. Early in the eighteenth century the Amish, also called Amish Mennonites, appeared in Pennsylvania first and soon established settlements elsewhere. Today, Amish communities are found primarily in various parts of Canada and the United States, where they are conspicuous for their men's and women's old-fashioned dress and rural, simple way of life. Amish men are bearded and they eschew automobiles for horse-drawn vehicles. Their lives are marked by industry, frugality, and colorful customs. In Pennsylvania particularly, the Amish contribute to local economies by raising and marketing agricultural crops. They also attract large numbers of tourists who are happy to stare at them, dine on what they think are Amish foods, and buy locally made craft items. ampere The ampere is the basic unit of electric current in the International System of Units, used in most countries other than the United States and by scientists everywhere. In the earlier metric system, the ampere was derived from the number of electrons passing through a wire. But the current definition--Yes, Virginia, there is a pun here--holds that it is the amount of current that would produce a specified tiny force between two wires a meter apart--No, Virginia, not an electric meter --when the current flows through them both in the same direction. The old definition was, to say the least, more intuitive if perhaps harder to measure accurately. How would one actually count 6,250,000,000,000,000,000 electrons as they passed by? When scientists found ways to measure electric current and energy, they thought to honor the founders of their subject. Ampere, volt, coulomb , and ohm started a trend that has continued with such units as newton, joule , and kelvin --all named for pioneering physicists. It is interesting that it was Lord Kelvin (see Kelvin scale) who, in 1883, proposed naming the basic unit of electric current the ampere. This unit honors the French mathematical physicist André-Marie Ampére (1800-1864), who, between 1820 and 1827, discovered the basic laws of electromagnetism. ampulla of Lorenzini A sense organ found in the skin of sharks and rays. Named for an Italian physician, Stefano Lorenzini (fl. 1678), who first described this interesting anatomical feature. The Romans called a round flask with two handles an ampulla . Anatomists have taken up the term to describe any bulge in a bodily tube, and there are four or five such ampullae in the human body as well as similar bulges in the organs of other creatures. (See also ampulla of Vater.) The ampullae of Lorenzini can detect even small changes in heat, pressure, or salinity, but their role in recognizing and quantifying electric currents in water appears to be their main function. It has been determined that sharks use small changes in electric current to find their prey, then use vision and smell to aim their attack. And you thought it was safe to wear your waterproof watch while scuba-diving at Club Med. ampulla of Vater The ampulla of Vater, named for German anatomist Abraham Vater (1684-1751), who described it in 1720, is the bulge in humans at the site where the tubes leading to the small intestine from the pancreas and from the liver merge to form the common bile duct. (See also ampulla of Lorenzini.) anacreontic An adjective meaning convivial and amatory, taken from the name of Anacreon (c.570-c.475 B.C.), a Greek lyric poet famous for his satires and his elegant love poetry. The adjective anacreontic suggests the contents of Anacreon's poems in praise of love and wine. Only fragments of Anacreon's work are extant, but his name is also recalled elsewhere in English. The capped adjective Anacreontic means in the style of Anacreon, and the noun Anacreontic means a poem in the style or subject matter of Anacreon. The phrase Anacreontic poetry is applied to verse written by or derived from that of Anacreon, and anacreontic meter is used to indicate the meter in which Anacreon and his Greek imitators wrote their poetry. Ananias Any habitual liar. We encounter the biblical Ananias in Acts. He was an early Christian who "gave up the ghost"--which usually means died, but in this case means struck dead. The act for which he received this divine retribution arose from a real estate transaction. He and his wife Sapphira sold their property and then withheld from the apostles part of the proceeds of the sale. The lie Ananias told was to claim falsely he had given the entire proceeds to the apostles. And what happened to Sapphira, who had also profited from the sale? "About the space of three hours after ... she gave up the ghost" and was soon carried out for burial alongside Ananias. In those days, lying and greed were no small matters. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Eugene Ehrlich. All rights reserved.

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