In March 1999, Twisty Tongue dealt with eponyms, words that grow from a personal name. I offered such examples as sadism, leotard, nicotine, maverick, volt, dunce, boycott, cardigan, quisling and shrapnel.
In June, 2000, the verb “to burke” was discussed. To burke (to murder by suffocation or strangulation for the purpose of obtaining a body for dissection; to hush up; to set aside without consideration or discussion) comes from the name of Irish murderer, William Burke, whose escapades inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers.
Another interesting eponym is guillotine, the machine that beheads people.
In days gone by, beheading was common. It was the method used to execute important people like royalty. Commoners were hanged, or drawn and quartered, or worse.
Henry VIII disposed of unwanted wives by removing their heads via an executioner with an axe. When Charles I of England died on January 30, 1649, history records that his head was severed “with one clean stroke.”
Such wasn’t always the case. It’s said Anne Boleyn gave thanks for her narrow neck. She well knew decapitation seldom followed a single swipe of the headsman’s axe. Often, the wounded, bleeding subject endured several attempts before a successful beheading ensued.
This inhumane way of killing pushed France’s Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin to action. Guillotin (1738-1814) was not only a physician, but a Deputy of the National Constituent Assembly, a body we might roughly compare to the House of Commons. The Assembly was set up following the fall of France’s royal family at the start of the French Revolution in 1789.
Guillotin opposed the death penalty and, after witnessing many botched beheadings, he proposed a more humane method of execution.
Guillotin didn’t invent the guillotine, which
wasn’t a new fabrication. Similar devices had been around since at least 1541. France’s version of the medieval beheading machine was built by Tobias Schmidt with plans from Dr. Antoine Louis. But, somehow, Guillotin’s name became attached.
Between 18,000 and 40,000 French people were guillotined during the 10 or so years the revolution lasted. No wonder guillotine became a household word.
But Joseph Guillotin, a humanitarian, was devastated that his name should be given to a killing machine. The Guillotins attempted through the courts to have the guillotine called something else. When these efforts failed, they changed the family name.
Originally, guillotine was spelled as the doctor spelled his name — with no final e. Before long, this beheading machine became la guillotine, the feminine form of the name. La guillotine came to be known as some female destructive force.
Death by guillotine was France’s sole mode of execution until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.
The word guillotine didn’t stay in France. For some 200 years, guillotine has been used in industry to describe such tools as paper cutters. Since 1866, a surgical instrument for tonsillectomies has been called a guillotine. Closure, as used in parliament to cut short debate, is known as guillotining.
Poor Dr. Guillotin. He’s probably turning over in his grave.