This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Helen Zaltzman’s ‘The Allusionist’ is a show about language and words. That’s kind of like saying that this show is about architecture and design. The description doesn’t quite capture the way we use those lenses to view the world at large.
My favorite words are eponyms. If you don’t know what an eponym is, you are about to find out. Because I love eponyms so much, each year Helen produces an episode of ‘The Allusionist” about eponyms which feature me talking a little bit and we put 2 of those episodes together for you to enjoy. One quick note, Helen is from the UK where they often refer to ballpoint pens as biros. You would have picked that up through context but I just wanted to eliminate that half-second of confusion you might have if you are not from there. Alright, without further ado, here’s Helen Zaltsman’s “The Allusionist”.
A while ago, Roman tweeted –
“I would totally listen to an ongoing radio series comprised solely of the stories behind eponyms.”
Firstly, I thought, what’s an eponym? (page flipping) Eponym, noun. A word or name derived from the name of a person or a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named. Secondly, I wondered it was about eponyms that got Roman so excited?
An eponym, almost by definition, has some kind of story – even if it isn’t the origin story, it has something where it got the eponym attached to it, which is a good enough story to be retold. For that reason, I kind of love them, and it starts a good conversation. That’s what I love about eponyms.
I‘ve always liked ‘silhouette’ because I think it’s a bit of a slur. If I have this right, this really elaborate portrait painting was in fashion. Silhouette was the head of the French treasury, was cutting back into his diversion of austerity right at the time outline drawings were coming back into fashion which were clearly not as elaborate, didn’t require an artist to spend months and months of time. So that type of portrait was ‘a la Silhouette’, stripped-down, simple, didn’t require skill. I love that because it’s a bit of a slight at the same time as being descriptive.
Well if you like ‘silhouette’, Roman, you’re going to love ‘bowdlerization’, after the English editor Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 released a version of Shakespeare’s plays that he’d reworked to make them more suitable for women and children, ie he’d taken out all the naughty bits and foul language – Lady Macbeth doesn’t even say her famous line, “Out, out damned spot” anymore, but “Out, crimson spot”, as if she’s in a laundry detergent advert. His edition was actually a huge success and brought Shakespeare to a much wider audience, but his name does now stand for cack-handed expurgation.
Roman Mars: I love them. When it comes to word origins, an eponym is the shortest bet you’re going to get a good story out of it.
Helen Zaltsman: And it took me this long to realize it.
Roman Mars: I know. What is your problem? I told you from the beginning just to make an eponyms show! I love them. So do a regular one. Do one every six weeks.
Helen Zaltsman: I’ll see how this one goes.
I’m going to start small, with some items you’re probably all familiar with. You might be holding one right now. The Bic and the Biro. I chose these for the first eponyms attempt because I thought they are in the spirit of both Roman’s show 99% Invisible, which examines a lot of commonplace objects, and of this one, because this is a show about words, and what is stationery without words, and words without stationery?
James Ward: Stationery is the physical infrastructure of words.
That’s James Ward, author of Adventures In Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case. So James knows a lot about the ballpoint pen, which we might casually refer to as a Biro or a Bic.
James Ward: I guess what’s interesting is that, for lots of people, they’re just one thing. So people will say a Bic Biro.
Helen Zaltsman: Is that controversial?
James Ward: It’s odd in the same way that you wouldn’t say, “I’m going to have a can of Pepsi-Coke”. I suppose you might say, “I just bought a Dyson Hoover”. I guess it’s when one brand becomes the generic and the other remains specific.
Helen Zaltsman: How do you think ‘biro’ managed to become the generic?
James Ward: László Bíró didn’t invent the ballpoint, but he perfected it.
The invention of the ballpoint, going by a patent filed in 1888, is credited to John J. Loud, who had a great name for a product, but not a good pen. Which left room for László Bíró to swoop in and claim ballpoint victory.
Born in Budapest in 1899, László Bíró had been, variously, a medical student, a stage hypnotist, an insurance salesman, then a race car driver, a – and eventually he became a journalist, which was what he was working as in the early 1930s when he invented the pen that would make his name. Indeed, take his name.
James Ward: Apparently when he was in the print room, the heat of the machinery caused his fountain pen to melt and leak, so he wanted to create the technology for a pen that wouldn’t leak due to heat and pressure. He saw the way cylindrical printing presses rolled the ink onto the page, and thought, “If only you could have a miniature version of those.” But the problem is that a cylinder can only roll forwards and backwards, whereas when you’re writing, it needs to roll in all directions.
The story that is almost certainly not true but is frequently told is that he was sitting in a cafe looking out of the window, trying to make sense of how you make a cylinder roll in all directions. It had been raining outside, and there were some kids playing with marbles, and one of them rolled a marble through a puddle, and then he saw the line of water that the marble made on the pavement and suddenly realized a ball rolled in all directions.
I dunno, it seems quite obvious that a ball rolls in all directions. All ball games are based on that principle. But it took him these children playing with marbles to make the connection. He had this weird experience – I think he was checking into a hotel and signed in using his prototype pen, and the guy next to him said, “That’s interesting, tell me about your pen.”
Not the best pick-up line, but that passing pen enthusiast turned out to be the former president of Argentina, visiting Europe to promote trade links. So László Bíró moved to Argentina to grow his pen empire. Penpire?
James Ward: The story is, they had these prototype pens and would take them to meetings to try to get investors. László would be doing all the talking, and his colleague would be under the table – some of the pens worked, some didn’t, so he’d be scribbling on a piece of paper, and if a pen worked, he’d go, “Oh, here’s a sample!” Whereas if it didn’t start working, he’d give László a signal who’d say they didn’t have any prototypes with them.
Helen Zaltsman: So Biros were a bit rubbish?
James Ward: They had lots of problems they had to resolve. They had to find an ink that was viscous enough not to leak out, but not so thick it would clog or jam; they had to find a way that you could keep it in a jacket pocket and the heat and pressure wouldn’t cause it to leak.
James Ward: So Bíró teams up with Henry Martin, who was involved with the UK aeronautics industry. To make the pens, you need very very fine ball bearings, and the aviation industry makes the best ballbearings. This is during the Second World War. They started manufacturing these ballpoint pens and gave them to the RAF because if you’re flying really high and need to write down coordinates or whatever, you want a pen that’s not going to leak because of the air pressure. And these pens worked.
Hooray! But it wasn’t smooth-rolling thenceforth. There was a lot of competition, albeit mostly rubbish. In the United States, a man called Milton Reynolds wanted to be the first to launch a ballpoint in that country.
James Ward: The Reynolds International, described as an atomic age super pen.
He didn’t actually put in much effort to make the super pen a super pen; he just wanted to be the first to market so everyone bought his pen.
James Ward: He was an opportunistic huckster. He rushed out this pen, which caused a sensation at the time – when it first launched in New York, there were thousands of people lining the streets.
Helen Zaltsman: Like Beatlemania, for pens.
James Ward: Or like a new iPhone. but for pens. So he launched this pen, but it was really crappy. It came with a guarantee that if it broke within two years, they’d replace it; they had to replace hundreds of thousands of these things. In the US, that created the market for the ballpoint, but it also nearly killed it off, because people had that experience with the bad pens.
But then another major ballpoint player entered the fray. A manufacturer of fountain pens who kept getting inquiries for ballpoint pen parts: Marcel Bich. Spelled B-I-C-H, but for his eponymous pen he dropped the H, so you didn’t think that the Bic Crystal was pronounced ‘bigh’ or ‘bitch’ or any other way than ‘Bic’.
James Ward: It was after the war that the Bichs came along. They licensed the technology from Bíró, then there were these very complicated legal battles where each company kept suing the other one claiming infringement. Miles Martin, the UK company Bíró was involved with, was suing Bich, and there were all these complications – with Richard Curtis romcom-like inevitability, Henry Martin, who ran the Miles Martin company, his son married the daughter of Marcel Bich.
Helen Zaltsman: Real Romeo & Juliet stuff.
James Ward: But you can imagine it must have been tricky when they were choosing which pen to sign the marriage certificate with.
Helen Zaltsman: Maybe they used a pencil.
James Ward: Bic grew and grew and grew.
Helen Zaltsman:: How?
James Ward: Because that particular pen, the Bic Crystal, the one everyone refers to as the Bic Biro, with its hexagonal body and its familiar cap with the hole in the end – that particular pen just works.
Helen Zaltsman: So it’s meritocracy in action.
James Ward: Something like half of all ballpoint pens sold in the world every day are Bic Crystals. So if you think of the millions of types of ballpoints – supermarket, own brand…
Helen Zaltsman: I’ve got this one I stole from a hotel, I’m almost ashamed to show you.
James Ward: The Bic Crystal just works. And there’s one in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I don’t know if it’s always on display, but it’s definitely in their collection somewhere.
Helen Zaltsman: You have to ask. You have to pay $20 to see something that you could buy for $0.50
James Ward: Yes, but it’s a different experience.
Let’s take a little etymology break. ‘Pen’ and ‘pencil’ may share a syllable, but don’t let that dupe you into thinking they have a common linguistic origin. ‘Pen’ derives from the Latin ‘penna’, which meant ‘feather’, so saying ‘quill pen’ is a tautology, good to know. Pencil, meanwhile, came from the Latin for a painter’s brush, ‘penicillus’, a diminutive of ‘pēniculus’, which meant ‘little tail’. And the Latin for ‘tail’ is also where we get the word ‘penis’.
Anyway, back to pens, and how their development influenced the development of writing itself.
James Ward: The ability to make marks more precisely means you’re able to make more complex marks. If you only have a bit of stick and a clay tablet, you can only produce a simple script. But if you start using a reed brush on papyrus, that offers more flexibility; then if instead of papyrus, which is quite rough, you use parchment or vellum, which is extremely smooth, you can use a quill which is flexible – so you’re able to produce beautiful illustrated or illuminated texts. With those developments, the characters that you’re able to produce are easier to distinguish, so you can have more characters and writing that’s more complex.
My school would only let us use fountain pens. We were NOT allowed to write with ballpoints. A fountain pen can produce thin strokes and thick strokes and flourishes, and thus invest handwriting with character and flair; whereas the ball produces lines of uniform thickness. So a lot of people believed the pens were detrimental to handwriting.
James Ward: But László’s daughter said her father would often respond to those complaints. He’d hear people say the ballpoint was ruining writing skills, and he’d smile and say, “Well, if writing comes from the heart, if we can help the hand to perform the hand to perform the task, what’s so wrong with that?” And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Well done László Bíró.
I think it’s also interesting that Bíró and Bic’s names are on products that are hugely successful, but rarely the center of attention – and also disposable.
James Ward: Yeah. And also they are kind of disposable, in that you can know what a Bic or a Biro is, but you don’t need to know who Marcel is or who László is. They’ve made this disposable contribution to history, and in the same way, made themselves disposable.
So if your eponymous product is successful, your involvement in it, and even your own identity is subsumed. Which might not sit that well with the kind of people who put their names on things, because calling something after yourself seems like quite an egomaniacal choice to me.
Roman Mars: I may be wrong, but my impression is a lot of eponyms are not the person naming it after themselves, it’s more assigned by another person.
Helen Zaltsman: Like a mark of respect.
Roman Mars: Yeah.
Helen Zaltsman: Having a disease named after you is quite a sad way to be remembered, isn’t it?
Roman Mars: I don’t know – if you were a researcher, you’ve probably got over the grossness of the disease and just enjoy the fact you were instrumental in its discovery or successful treatment. So I have a feeling I could live with a horrible disease being named after me.
Helen Zaltsman: But then you have people only remembering you because you’re what killed their grandma. And you feel good about that?
Roman Mars: Be remembered. Doesn’t matter what it’s for!
Helen Zaltsman: That’s what serial killers are banking on.
Roman Mars: And now part 2 of “The Allusionist” eponym saga where we learn some bad news about eponyms.
Isaac Siemens: There is a gradual shift away from using eponyms in medicine.
Helen Zaltzman: Who’s this enemy of eponyms?
Isaac Siemens: My name is Isaac Siemens and I’m a resident physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
I think that there’s two camps in medicine currently: people who want to use eponyms and people who want to move away from eponyms. And there’s a few different reasons for that: mostly people that are more in touch with history, perhaps; and then people that are more moving towards accuracy in language. In broad strokes, that’s the controversy.
Helen Zaltzman: You can see the practical case for this shift. Medical workers have to stay abreast of an awful lot of terminology. You try memorizing a load of surnames and which ailment each one represents.
Isaac Siemens: A list of diseases with somebody’s last name as the title gives you no information and you can get bungled up. Whereas you can kind of fake your way through, if you will, if the name of the disease says something about the disease itself.
Helen Zaltzman: To use an example that was all over the news when I was growing up: CJD. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The name alone doesn’t tell you much about what it is unless you are familiar with the early 20th-century work of the German neurologists Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. The eponym is also not easy to spell. At the far end of the scale, tabloids called the condition “the human form of mad cow disease”: a cartoonish term for a brutal and incurable illness. So the other option is the scientific term. CJD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalitis. Encephalitis: from the medical Latin ‘encephalon’ from the Ancient Greek ‘ἐγκέφαλος’, meaning ‘brain’; the ‘-itis’ suffix denotes inflammation.
Isaac Siemens: ‘Spongiform encephalitis’ – to me, that would be easier because that tells you something about it, although it’s Latin, it gives you a bit of information so you could piece it together if you had to.
Helen Zaltzman: Yeah, well, ‘spongy’…
Isaac Siemens: Yes. It turns your brain to sponge. So it’s all there.
Helen Zaltzman: If anything, that’s more literal than a lot of disease names would be.
Isaac Siemens: Yeah, I think so.
Helen Zaltzman: Perhaps, when you’re receiving a diagnosis, there’s some psychological protection from the grim reality of what’s happening in your body being somewhat disguised by science-speak or the opaqueness of an eponym. On the other hand, an overly academic or incomprehensible description of the condition can amplify a patient’s stress and fear.
Isaac Siemens: One thing that hopefully is changing in medicine, that maybe ties in with this whole issue, is the black-boxing of knowledge and this protective nature of different professions; I think it’s similar to law or engineering maybe, where in order to protect our jobs and to seem like we have some sort of power over the people we work with, we make things possibly more difficult to understand than they need to be, and we use that jargon and a language that needs to be taught to be understood. So I don’t know if there is some sort of unconscious protectionism of our practice involved with naming of diseases, because even the non-eponym names are very complicated and don’t mean a lot to people.
Helen Zaltzman: It’s quite a common thing in language, like the Bible using quite lofty-sounding language so that you maintain that division of status. But I just wonder whether there’s a decent middle ground in medicine between ‘wibbly wobbly heart disease’ and a long complicated name.
Isaac Siemens: You don’t want it so simple that you sound kind of stupid or like you don’t know what’s going on when you say it, I guess; but also, in medicine, as in everything, communication is so important. And so you want to strike that middle ground where you’re making sense to the person who it’s most important to, which is the patient.
Helen Zaltzman: So in some circumstances, it’s better to use the eponym because it might be more familiar.
Isaac Siemens: We learn about trisomy 21, which is a genetic disorder that we’re encouraged to speak about referring to the actual genetic issue, whereas Down’s Syndrome is the common eponym for that disease, that’s very commonly heard; and I think the lay public as well are more familiar with that language.
Helen Zaltzman: Some concepts are really hard to describe without the eponym – and with an eponym, much more memorable.
Roman Mars: Would the Heimlich Manoeuvre be something that people knew if it wasn’t attached to a name like Heimlich? No, I don’t think so.
Helen Zaltzman: Would it have made the news in May of this year when 96-year-old Dr. Henry Heimlich himself saved a woman from choking on a piece of hamburger meat by using the maneuver that bears his name?
Roman Mars: So I still like them in these ways that they help tell an interesting story. But I totally get why and I’m not so tied to my world view or nostalgia that I cannot accept that it would be better another way.
Helen Zaltzman: Well, good, because there are certainly some aspects to eponyms that I don’t think you’d like, Roman.
Isaac Siemens: A lot of the argument against eponyms is that it’s sort of a simplification of complex stories where generally a white dead male will get the eponym. But if you look at the process of discovering and categorizing diseases, it’s often over the course of more than a lifetime, and it involves many many people. And it’s sort of a false history to just use this name.
And then there are ridiculous extremes, where there’s four or five people that all have a similar form of the disease named after them, and then later on they discover that it was the same disease the whole time, and then it gets all messed up. I have one of them written down because I can never remember it. But I think it’s the longest eponym that I’ve come across, and it’s a four barreled name: Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome.
Helen Zaltzman: Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome is congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina.
Isaac Siemens: So basically, it sounds like four people all had some sort of a claim to the discovery of the disease.
Helen Zaltzman: Really, there were far more than four: people had been writing about the condition all the way back as far as the Greek physician Hippocrates, in the fifth century BC. Mayer, Rokitansky, Küster and Hauser all made significant contributions to the understanding of the disease, but they weren’t even working together: Mayer described the syndrome in a paper in 1829; that’s fifty years before Küster was born, 92 years before the birth of Hauser, who went on to name the disease Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster Syndrome. Someone else added Hauser to the end.
Isaac Siemens: And you don’t hear that disease name a lot. But I feel like every time I hear it, the order is a little different, so I don’t even know if there’s a standardized name order to it.
Helen Zaltzman: Maybe they shuffle it so that everyone gets a turn at the front.
Isaac Siemens: Yeah. They take turns.
Helen Zaltzman: The problem with quite a lot of eponyms is the person named therein.
Isaac Siemens: Reiter’s Syndrome is a condition where your joints – you get joint pain related to a kind of systemic inflammation, and it’s named after Hans Reiter, who was a famous Nazi war criminal who did terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald.
Helen Zaltzman: Hans Reiter discovered the eponymous syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War – prior to his Nazi affiliations, of which the American rheumatologist Dr. Ephraim Engleman was unaware when he coined the eponym in 1942. But he later joined the campaign, which began in 1977, to replace the eponym with a name that doesn’t honor somebody associated with war crimes and mass murder. If you don’t want to evoke Hans Reiter, you can call this condition ‘reactive arthritis’.
But, while usage of the eponymous term has decreased, it is still being used in medical schools and in journals. The debate rages on. Do you pick and choose which parts of history are marked? Or do you allow a person’s scientific achievements to be honored despite whatever horrible things they did? Controversial things, eponyms.
Isaac Siemens: But there’s even more controversy about eponyms: there’s a sub-conflict going on about whether to use the possessive or not in eponyms. So even within people that use eponyms or don’t, the people that use eponyms are having debates about whether it should be Down’s – apostrophe S, for possessive – or Down Syndrome, and there’s research about which should be used in medical journals to simplify searches so that you don’t have to search both terms.
Roman Mars: Yeah, I think that’s the one thing I would simplify. I would get rid of all apostrophes in eponyms. That seems like the right solution.
Helen Zaltzman: It’s a Caesar salad, it’s not Caesar’s salad. Caesar knows.
Roman Mars: Yeah. That should just be what it is. But yeah, the apostrophes – it messes up a little too much, and you shouldn’t have to think about it. There’s already enough stuff to think about.
Helen Zaltzman: Yes, you need to worry about the horrible disease you’ve got. Or that you’ve got to cure.
Roman Mars: And the great rich story behind the name.
Helen Zaltzman: Something to keep you occupied in the waiting room isn’t it.
Roman Mars: Exactly. It’s just that an eponym just does have so much story embedded in it. In fact last night I was eating dinner with my kids and my wife and we were talking about childbirth and mentioned the Caesarian Section. The way that these two babies, my twin boys, came into this world; and it caused us to talk about Caesar and was Caesar really the first person to be the result of a section in which case, I have no actual knowledge of this, but I said probably not – it’s hard to imagine that the first person to be born through this procedure also became one of the most famous people in all of history.
Helen Zaltzman: And invented one of the most famous salads.
Roman Mars: The eponyms – they’re endlessly fascinating. But it causes great conversation at a dinner table with two 9-year-olds and my wife and we had fun talking about it and even the parts of it that are the caveats – generally the etymology with the tidiest story is the least true. You know? That’s the nature of it, unfortunately; they’re shaggier and messier – in general, the true ones are shaggier and messier.
Helen Zaltzman: Your have some gory dinner table conversations.
Roman Mars: It was getting on the edge there.
Helen Zaltzman: But if you’re talking messy, good grief.