For better or worse, our names outlive us – in public records and private mementoes; in brick-and-mortar archives and the boundless vaults of cyberspace; and for a time, at least, in human memory. Some names retain a measure of familiarity, affixed to buildings, streets, and even entire communities. Others are invoked by pundits and debated by historians. But, in the fullness of time, most monikers slowly “fade away,” as Douglas MacArthur said of old soldiers.
Our best shot at immortality lies in the dictionary, where names – now eponyms – transcend the bodies of their owners, defining the epochs in which they lived (Victorian or Napoleonic), the worlds they conjured (Dickensian or Orwellian), or enriching our language with new adjectives denoting the ideas or traits with which they were identified in life. Here are a few examples. Can you think of others?
Meaning: Exhibiting great wisdom, especially with respect to decision making.
Source: Solomon (circa 10th century BC), Israelite ruler who was extolled for his sagacity, the Bible noting that “all the earth sought to Solomon, to hear his wisdom.”
Meaning: Extremely harsh or rigorous.
Source: Draco (circa 7th century BC), Greek legislator who established Athens’ first written legal code, which was notable for its severity, prescribing the death penalty for even minor offenses.
Meaning: Guided by political expediency rather than moral principle; marked by cunning or duplicity.
Source: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Italian diplomat and philosopher whose treatise The Prince suggested that in statecraft, the end justifies the means, including immorality.
Meaning: Outwardly impressive but actually insubstantial.
Source: Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791), Russian courtier, commander, and favorite of Catherine the Great who was accused of creating sham villages to mislead the empress into believing the region he administered was more prosperous than it was.
Meaning: Characterized by intense competition in which the fittest are most likely to survive.
Source: Charles Darwin (1809-1882), British naturalist whose theory of evolution based on natural selection profoundly influenced the life sciences and whose name was attached, often inappropriately, to other scientific and social theories.
Meaning: Treacherous or disloyal.
Source: Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), Norwegian politician who led a collaborationist government during Nazi Germany’s occupation of his country and was executed at the end of World War II for treason.