Q: I’ve always thought eponymous referred to someone for whom something is named. But I recently noticed that writers from first-rate sources, including the NY Times, use it as well to refer to something named for someone. The Times, for example, has referred to Mayor Bloomberg’s “eponymous financial information company.” So, am I wrong?
A: Your original instinct was right – or at least it originally was.
Traditionally, the adjective “eponymous” has referred to the person something is named for. So, for example, Hamlet is the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
The corresponding noun, “eponym,” has traditionally meant someone who gives his or her name to something. So Hamlet (the character, not the play) is an eponym.
But in modern English, these words have dual meanings. An “eponym” can be either the name giver (William Penn, for instance) or the name given (Pennsylvania). Similarly, “eponymous” can modify either one.
As Merriam-Webster online explains, “we can speak of ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan.’ ” British usage has also shifted. Here’s Cambridge Dictionaries online: “An eponymous character in a play, book, etc. has the same name as the title.”
Both “eponym” and “eponymous” were adopted into English in the mid-19th century. The earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary come from the same book, George Grote’s A History of Greece (1846).
Here are the passages cited: “The eponymous personage from whom the community derive their name” and “Pelops is the eponym or name-giver of the Peloponnesus.”
The words have their source in the Greek eponymos, from epi (“upon”) and onoma (“name”).
As we mentioned, historically both “eponym” and “eponymous” have referred to the source (Mayor Bloomberg, for example), not to what’s named after it (Bloomberg L.P.). And this was true until relatively recently.
Our 1956 printing of the unabridged second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (sometimes called Web II) has the traditional definitions.
But six decades later, “eponym” and ”eponymous” work both ways; they can refer not only to the namer but also to the named.
When we wrote about “eponymous” on our blog a couple of years ago, we took the traditional view and noted that it was becoming overused (it still is!).
When words are overused, they’re often used more loosely. And when that happens, their meanings become wider and lexicographers change the definitions we see in dictionaries.
Given the popularity of “eponymous,” its evolution was probably inevitable.
As a result, we can no longer fault Times reporters who write things like “Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of an eponymous financial information company,” or “Max Protetch, who has run an eponymous gallery in Manhattan for nearly 40 years.”
A generation ago, copy editors would have corrected those passages to make the founders eponymous, not the businesses. But no more.