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In the name of action: Three verbs named after people

John Murray

How would you feel if your surname came to be used to describe a certain action? It might be one carried out every day without leaving the house, or one with highly  negative connotations, but it’s quite a legacy to leave on the world for a name to be used to describe something a person can do.

Here are three verbs you probably use regularly, but how much do you know about the people behind them?

1. To hoover

How often in your life have you been asked to vacuum or vacuum clean the stairs? Probably only if you had to do it as part of a TV programme that didn’t want to fall foul of product placement laws. To most people in Britain, using a vacuum cleaner is known as ‘hoovering’.

The man whose name you cite when you refer to the household cleaning chore is Hoover Company founder William Henry “Boss” Hoover, although it was his wife Susan who first used it after it was introduced to her by a janitor at a department store.

Today, Hoover may not dominate the vacuum cleaner market like it once did (indeed, Dyson overtook it in sales of upright cleaners in 1995), but Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that the term ‘hoovering’ continues to grow in usage and is spelt without a capital ‘H’ in the vast majority of cases.

2. To boycott

If you stop buying a product or using a service out of principle, you are said to be ‘boycotting’, but who on Earth could have this practice named after them?

The answer is Captain Charles Boycott, a land agent in County Mayo, Ireland, who attracted the ire of the local community in 1880 when he evicted several tenants from the land after they refused to accept a 10% drop in rental rates due to poor harvests. Agitator Charles Stewart Parnell proposed a peaceful protest against Boycott’s actions, suggesting that locals should shun Boycott and anyone who moved onto the land freed up as a result of the evictions.

Strangely, “boycott” is the term that’s come into use for the practice of protesting against something by shunning it, even though Boycott wasn’t the one boycotting. Perhaps the act should really be known as ‘parnelling’?

3. To lynch

Amazingly, several people with the surname Lynch have been rather prone to lynching over the years.

Irishman James Lynch Fitzstephen is thought to be the founder of the phrase, having hanged his son in Galway in the late 15th Century, but Americans tend to attribute it to Charles Lynch and his court for imprisoning pro-British Loyalists almost 300 years later.

A hat-trick of lynching Lynches is completed by Captain William Lynch, who claimed that the phrase was first used in a 1780 independent law compact he signed, although historians dispute the likelihood of this particular Lynch’s boast.

So what would your surname mean if it were a verb? I would like to think that “to murray” might one day be used to mean “to provoke thought” or “to muse” – even if it is more likely to mean “to break things”.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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