Friday, February 5, 2010

Review: Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano

This book combines a couple of my favorite things: obscure words and useless trivia. Did you know that the guy who invented the trapeze also was named Leotard and invented the leotard as well? That was just kind of accidental - he wanted to be more flashy and was showing off his muscles. This is an example of an anonyponymous word. It is both eponymous (named after a person) and anonymous (a person you've never heard of.) The Earl of Sandwich is the most famous of these people, except that by dint of being famous for being anonyponymous, he's no longer anonymous, so that ends up excluding him after all. Ironic.

A few of these I already knew. I had a great book in 11th grade for vocabulary building and that used some of these hilarious and bizarre stories to explain to students in a way they'd understand, and more importantly remember, words like galvanize, maudlin, and martinet. Also in middle school a couple of times we had teachers call in sick too late to get a substitute, so our principal subbed. He'd come in and say, "What is this class, science? Math? Well we're going to learn about The Civil War." Naturally, he had been a history teacher. But he also knew what would get kids' attention and stick in their memory, and he told us about General Hooker and General Burnside, and their namesakes. It was quite shocking in Catholic school to have your principal talking about hookers, let me tell you!

Some of my favorites: Silhouette was a French politician so parsimonious that the word designates anything cheap (and naturally flimsy). Delaware I thought was a Native American word, but no, it is for Thomas De La Warre, governor of Jamestown. Papazarri was the most random: a character name from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (and yes the character is a celebrity photographer), that came from the owner of an Italian hotel mentioned in a 1901 travel memoir. Quisling was hilarious because he was even disliked by Hitler which is certainly saying something. Shrapnal surprised me as being named after a person, but once I knew that it wasn't surprising that he invented an exploding cannon ball.

The book has charming and amusing illustrations throughout. It was a fun distraction, perfect for any wordophile.
PS: more random trivia. The author is the son of Ludwig Bemelmans, most famous for illustrating the Madeline books, but who also painted murals in an eponymous bar, Bemelmans, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a truly excellent place for a philosophical conversation on a rainy afternoon.

1 comment:

Alyce said...

I'm glad to see that this book is so entertaining because I've had it on my wish list for a while now. :) I love learning about words and word origins!