By Sarah Powell.

Although language is often conceived of as an abstract code, existing independently of its speakers or the world it describes, it’s really inextricable from culture. Part of a society’s culture is its shared history, so it’s no wonder that every language bears the stamp of history on it, even if that history may have become obscured by time or shifting social opinions. Here are a few common English words that hearken back to historical figures or places, perhaps more directly than you would expect:

Photo courtesy of Confetti

Someone who’s dissatisfied with the political stance of a company might decide to boycott its products to make a statement. But in 19th-century Ireland, it was the exact opposite situation that gave rise to our modern use of the word. Charles Boycott was the unfortunate land agent of a British peer in County Mayo, where many Irish nationalists embarked on a campaign to protest unfair land practices. Boycott fell under the displeasure of his community when he issued eviction notices to several tenants who had failed to pay all of their rent. Within days, local shops refused to serve him, his laundry service was suspended, and even his mail carrier stopped delivering his letters. Boycott was forced to ship in his food all the way from the edge of a neighboring county. Unlike most modern boycotts, the original was the ostracism of a consumer by companies and services–not the other way around.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence Whittemore

The original maverick was a Texas politician named Samuel Maverick, who was also a landowner with very little interest in his land. In 1845, he unwillingly came into the possession of 400 head of cattle as payment for a neighbor’s debt. Rather than care for them himself, he left them in the hands of a hired family and forgot about them. The cattle’s caretakers only branded a portion of the herd and allowed the others to wander free–and over time, an unbranded animal became known to local ranchers as a “maverick.” By 1886 the word was also being applied to people who were seen as independent, masterless, or stubborn. So although Samuel Maverick was himself an independent-minded politician who helped to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence, the use of his name for such individuals originates not with his political views, but with his lackadaisical attitude toward cattle herding.

Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch (courtesy of Vasiliy Efimenko)

The Marquis de Sade is widely known as the eponymous source of the English word sadism, but did you know that there was also a person behind sadism’s converse antonym, masochism? His name was Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, and he was an Austrian writer whose writing contained many undertones of what we refer to today as masochism, including the most widely-known, Venus in Furs, published in 1869. That was the same year he signed a contract with his mistress, “Baroness” Fanny Pistor, making him her slave for six months provided that she agree to wear furs as often as possible–especially when she was in a “cruel” mood (or so Wikipedia would have it). The term masochism was coined less than twenty years later by an Austrian psychiatrist, von Krafft-Ebing, who named the “sexual anomaly” after Sacher-Masoch because he believed he had received irrefutable proof that the author was afflicted with it. Sacher-Masoch was still alive at the time and was extremely unhappy to find himself appearing in von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal psychiatric publication.

Few English-speakers are surprised to learn that china, a common synonym for porcelain, entered our language in the 1500s because of the close association of expensive porcelain with the country of the same name. But far fewer people know that the same relationship holds for another, even commoner English word: turkey. You may have assumed that the relationship between the poultry and the place was accidental, but it isn’t. The large fowl commonly known as turkeys in the United States are endemic to the Americas and closely related to grouse, but English explorers in the New World incorrectly identified them as a type of guinea fowl.


Guinea fowl
Photo courtesy of photofarmer Photo courtesy of James Laing

Guinea fowl are native to Africa and resemble partridges; they’re about the size of a large chicken, but wealthy Europeans in the 16th century wanted them for their menageries, not their dinner tables. Traders imported the birds overland from Africa via the Ottoman Empire, and they subsequently became known as “turkey hens.” Later, the name was transferred to the only-distantly-related bird that had been domesticated by Native Americans. Interestingly, although the turkey acquired no such taxonomical misnomers among the other European languages to encounter it, it did become known as a poulle d’Inde or “Indian chicken” in French because of the belief that the Americas were a part of East Asia. The geographical misconception became widespread and in modern Turkish, the word for turkey is hindi.

For more information about the etymology of English words, visit the Online Etymology Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.

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