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What's in a Name? Five Weird Words Inspired by Real People

Shutterstock / Amir Ridhwan

After Scalia's Death, Everyone's Talking About "Borking." Meet the man whose name inspired the term.

After the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia last week, a name has been in the news for the first time in a few years: Robert Bork. The circuit judge was Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominee for the 1987 replacement of Lewis Powell, and Bork's far-right views sparked a congressional firestorm. Opponents of Bork's confirmation did everything they could to keep him off the court – U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy gave a legendary anti-Bork speech and employed other tactics that ranged from running scathing TV ads to releasing Bork's video rental history – and the debate over the nomination raged for a near-record 114 days. In the end, he was rejected, a result that hasn't been repeated in the decades since. But with Republicans on Capitol Hill vowing to reject any replacement for Scalia that President Barack Obama might nominate, Bork's name is back on the lips of many, cited both as a precedent for the Republican rejection and as absolutely nothing like the current situation.

In today's dictionaries, Bork is more than a name – it's a word, too, inspired by his 1987 ordeal. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb means "to attack or defeat (a nominee or candidate for public office) unfairly through an organized campaign of harsh public criticism or vilification." If the Senate goes after Obama's Supreme Court nominee with the intent of discrediting his or her suitability for the office, they will have borked the nominee.

Bork isn't the only person who lives on in the dictionary. Here are five more words inspired by real people.

Maverick: "A person who refuses to follow the customs or rules of a group." For watchers of politics, "maverick" was heard as frequently in 2008 as "bork" was in 1987, thanks to U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, which used the descriptor proudly as it touted its candidate as appealingly outside the norm. But the original maverick was Samuel Maverick, a Texan who dabbled in cattle ranching in the 1840s and '50s. And he just didn't feel like branding his cattle.

Maverick also didn't much feel like being a rancher – he was primarily a lawyer, and he owned a lot of land in Texas. He was given 400 head of cattle as payment for a debt, and while he had room for the herd on his land, he had little interest in caring for them. He left their care to his employees and didn't follow the standard practice of branding his livestock to distinguish them from those of his neighbors. Some said he skipped branding because he didn't want to inflict pain on the animals; others thought his motives were more mercenary: As the owner of an unbranded herd, he could claim any unbranded cattle found wandering about as his own. But his total lack of interest in ranching suggests that the real answer was that he just didn't care. He happily sold the herd in 1856, but his name lived on as the term the locals used to refer to any unbranded stray found wandering – and, later, to describe a person who doesn't stick with the herd.

Bloomers: "A costume for women consisting of a skirt over long, loose trousers gathered closely about the ankles." It was women's rights activist Amelia Bloomer who gave her name to this startling new fashion in 1851. She didn't create the style, which began showing up in the U.S. in 1849, but her enthusiastic adoption and promotion of the comfortable outfit led to the name choice.

Bloomer was the publisher of The Lily, a newspaper focused on women's rights issues. High on the list of those issues in the mid-19th century was the horrifically restrictive clothing for women, fashions that included whalebone corsets, which slimmed the physique by actually rearranging the internal organs over time. Bloomer and her fellow suffragists were tired of suffering for fashion, and they knew they'd be better able to serve the cause in the kinds of clothing that let them breathe and move. So when Bloomer published an article telling her readers about the remarkably comfy new skirted trousers she was wearing – even including a drawing and instructions on how to make them at home – she started a serious trend. Within months, media outlets were referring to the garment as a "Bloomer dress," and its popularity quickly became a veritable craze. Though the style eventually faded from fashion, the name stuck, and today we still call voluminous pants or undergarments, gathered at or below the knee, bloomers.

Boycott: "To refuse to buy, use or participate in (something) as a way of protesting; to stop using the goods or services of (a company, country, etc.) until changes are made." Perhaps you already knew the origin of "bloomers," but did you know "boycott" also comes from a name? The person who preceded the dictionary word was Capt. Charles Boycott, an English land agent in the late-19th century. And the adoption of the word was no tribute to a virtuous social agitator – it was an insult directed toward a man whom poor people hated.

Among Boycott's responsibilities as a land agent was collecting rent for Lord Erne, an absentee landlord of properties in Ireland. When he refused to give tenants much of a break after a bad harvest year in 1880 that left them unable to pay rent, the town rose up against Boycott. The tenants stopped working in the fields, but more than that, business owners who weren't even involved showed their support for the workers by refusing to do business with Boycott. The letter carrier even stopped delivering his mail. He eventually had to hire outsiders to work the fields, at a cost that greatly exceeded the amount at issue in the original rent payments. The incident made international news, and outsiders who were encouraged by the success of the protest soon began following suit by refusing to do business with antagonists in their own lives, and referring to their actions as boycotts.

Sandwich: "Two pieces of bread with something (such as meat, peanut butter, etc.) between them." You may have heard the story that the sandwich is named after the Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century British nobleman. The story is true, and there's even more to it than a busy man who wanted to multitask by eating while gambling without having to stop to use a knife and fork.

That's the kernel of the story: Sandwich, a noted gambler, was said to have called in frustration for his meat to be served between slices of bread so he didn't have to pause a game of cards in order to eat. His friends and fellow gamblers liked the idea and would ask for "the same as Sandwich," and a term was born. Other sources suggest that it's more likely that Sandwich consumed his creation while working at his desk rather than gambling. But what the legends don't mention is just how outlandish Sandwich would have been considered for eating his meals this way. In 18th-century England, finger foods were not the norm – eating without cutlery was considered shockingly casual. Imagine your dining companions suddenly plunging their faces into their plates and eating without using their hands at all ... you might get a sense of how unusual Sandwich's choice was.

Guppy: "A small tropical fish." The cutest little aquarium fish with the cutest little name gets its moniker from the only slightly less cutely named Robert Guppy, a British naturalist. From a background that didn't include any formal scientific training, Guppy rose to write influential works on fossil studies, but 100 years after his death, that's not his best-known legacy.

His biggest achievement, of course, concerned a very small fish, one that he noticed in nearby tropical waters while doing fieldwork on fossils in Trinidad. He collected a number of samples and sent them to the British Museum curator and ichthyologist Albert Gunther. Gunther clearly agreed that the tiny fishes were incredibly cute, and since they were also unclassified by taxonomy at the time, he paid tribute to Guppy by giving them the scientific name Girardinus guppii. Though their taxonomic name eventually changed, as the guppy was later reclassified as Poecilia reticulate, the popular moniker stuck, and Robert Guppy lives on in the fish tanks of grade school classrooms around the world.