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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | eponymous)

There must be a sort of man who remembers where he was the night of June 23, 1993, the night Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis and threw it out of a car window. That shook a lot of us up. The word took its place in the language quickly; I recall that people started using it right away. It was a verb (“bobbittize” also turned up). “Bobbitting” was the corresponding noun, and I seem to remember hearing “bobbittectomy.” lists ten or so variants, but most of them don’t seem very substantial. Fortunately, there have been very few similar incidents since; Lorena didn’t start an epidemic. When the situation does arise, at least we have a word for it, like the Greeks.

L’affaire Bobbitt (John Wayne Bobbitt got his penis re-attached and Lorena was found not guilty by reason of insanity) was a forerunner of the O.J. Simpson case, part of the sequence of events that inured us to sensational celebrity trials (they’re less common now, mercifully). The victim worked hard to stay in the news for a few years, but his star faded long ago. He survives as an eponym. The resemblance to “bob-tail” is purely coincidental, I should think.

I have not been able to think of any eponyms coined since 1980 other than the two covered here. We’ve had plenty of characters, misfits, inventors, and attention-grabbers of all kinds, but have any lent their names to the language? RuPaul? Bill Gates? Kato Kaelin? Sarah Palin? Miley Cyrus? Temple Grandin? Anybody?


(2010’s | eponymous)

Now a trademark, registered by Tim Tebow himself, the word blew up during the 2011 NFL season. Quarterback Tebow’s habit of getting on one knee and adopting a prayerful pose after a touchdown created a fad and a word of sorts. I’m not sure when he started doing it, but the phenomenon took off about a year ago, when Tebow became the Broncos’ starting quarterback and led them to the playoffs. He’s had many fewer opportunities to strike his signature pose this season with the Jets, and that may have slowed the spreading of the word.

About that pose: It reminds me of Rodin’s “Thinker” more than anything else. The two are not identical, of course, but both convey a sense of sincerity and concentration, of being able to shut out one’s surroundings and focus on what’s inside your head, be it cogitation, meditation, or prayer. My sense is that Tebow engages in tebowing only after a successful play or drive, and that it’s an elaborate version of pointing your index finger and your eyes upward to indicate gratitude to God for a touchdown. Most onfield praying by athletes seems to be of this kind.

Although lists “Tebow” as a verb meaning “perform the act of tebowing,” that use doesn’t strike my ear right, at least not yet. If “tebowing” has any staying power, the verb may well become common, too. Not too many eponyms are verbs — it’s something of a distinction. Peter King of offered an alternative definition: “To defeat an opponent while overcoming a major impediment.” Another alternative you might see is something like “perform badly most of the time but snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the end.” This is a pretty accurate description of many of Tebow’s successes last season, but it seems unlikely to become the primary sense of “tebow” as a verb.

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