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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

15 Common Words That Were Inspired by Real-Life People

You won’t believe what kinds of interesting characters inspired the words for cardigan, casanova, graham cracker, and more.

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And the Academy Award for the “Golden Statuette’s Eponym” is … a mystery! But, there are a few theories circulating. Actress Bette Davis supposedly claimed that the statue’s backside bore a striking resemblance to her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson. While Sidney Skolsky, a columnist, gives himself the title of “eponym creator” because he thought the nickname negated pretension from the esteemed award. And the Academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick reportedly declared that the statuette reminded her of her uncle, Oscar Pierce. We may never know its true origins. Here are the real-life people that inspired these iconic characters as well.

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Shirley Temple

Your favorite childhood mocktail was definitely named after none other than the curly-haired child star, Shirley Temple. The story goes that the wait staff at a Hollywood restaurant overheard the little girl whining when her parents wouldn’t give her a sip of their old-fashioned cocktails. A member of the staff mixed up a kid-friendly version made with a splash of grenadine, a cup of ginger ale, and garnished it with a signature maraschino cherry to emulate the old-fashioned cocktails her parents drank. One sip of the sweet, fizzy drink was all it took to quiet her cries. Cute and nice were just two of the many words people used to describe Shirely Temple, but they were actually a couple of the 15 common words that used to have completely different meanings.

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During the 1870s, history began to repeat itself as another agricultural crisis wreaked havoc in Ireland. The crisis threatened to recreate the horrific famine and mass evictions that occurred a mere thirty years prior. In an effort to campaign against rent increases and evictions by landlords, the Irish farmers banded together to form the Irish Land League. The group targeted one apathetic English land agent, in particular, Charles Cunningham Boycott, a man responsible for kicking out tenant farmers who refused to pay their rents. Boycott’s angered laborers and servants quit, his crops rotted to the ground, and the word “boycott” defined as “refusing to deal with a country, organization, or person to protest or punish them” was named after him. In a way, karma got him good.

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DunceGianni Dagli Orti/REX/Shutterstock


No one wants to be crowned the dunce of the group, in other words, the dumb, dopey one. But there was a time when being called a dunce was the greatest form of flattery. Long ago, everyone wanted to think just like John Duns Scotus, the greatest medieval philosopher of his time. In fact, his followers referred to themselves as “dunsmen.” Unfortunately, Scotus’ beliefs faded with the times and soon people criticized his convictions as being antiquated and dumb. Thus, “dunsman” was shortened to “duns”—no longer a term for a great thinker, but instead a slow-witted person. If you don’t want to sound like a dunce, never use these 70 words and phrases wrong again.

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BloomersAmoret Tanner Collection/REX/Shutterstock


The women’s rights activist, Amelia Bloomer, helped popularize the bloomer craze, despite the fact that other progressive women wore them much earlier than she did. As part of a women’s dress-reform movement, Bloomer started wearing loose-fitting blouses and short skirts with long pantaloons underneath to protest the heavy petticoats and bone-crushing corsets that women were forced to wear in the 1850s. Many people ridiculed her outlandish outfit that went against every gender norm. She lashed back at her critics in an article she wrote for a women’s rights newspaper that said, “Let men be compelled to wear our dress for awhile, and we should soon hear them advocating for change.” Soon after the article’s publication, everyone called the pantaloons “bloomers”—a new symbol for women’s rights. We may not use the word “bloomers” anymore to describe undergarments, but these are 10 words we should totally use again, but no longer do.

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CardiganThe Art Archive/REX/Shutterstock


Your favorite fall sweater wasn’t named after a seamstress or fashion designer. In fact, you can thank British general, James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, for reportedly popularizing the timeless fashion item. During the Crimean War in 1854, Cardigan’s regiment donned wool knit waistcoats, which were later called cardigans, to keep them warm on the battlefields of the Crimean Peninsula. No one is sure why cardigans were named after a man who didn’t invent the article of clothing. But some people theorize that his highbrow tastes for elegance and extravagance amongst his troop’s uniforms helped cardigans gain traction as a fashion statement well after the war.

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This object was actually named after its inventor, Adolphe Sax. The Belgian-French instrument maker wanted to combine the best of brass, woodwind, and stringed instruments into one masterpiece. By 1841, he had created his first working model of the bass horn, the saxophone’s former name. But a French reporter had a much “saxier” name for the instrument and dubbed it the saxophone. Sax patented the saxophone in 1846 and the name has stuck ever since! Reporters aren’t the only ones who make up words, these U.S. presidents made up these 8 words and phrases.

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GrahamVia Library of Congress

Graham Cracker

The sweet treat is ironically named after the 19th century health nut, Reverend Sylvester Graham. The clergyman preached incessantly about how detrimental excessive sexual desires were to one’s health. The reverend recommended a strict vegetarian diet for suppressing one’s carnal urges because he believed that eating fat and meat lead to unnecessary lustful infatuation. Many of his followers ate his renowned “Graham bread,” made from coarsely ground wheat to cleanse any sexual urges or thoughts from their bodies and minds. The original ingredients were a major deviation from today’s graham cracker recipe consisting of bleached white flour—a dietary evil that would have Graham seething in his grave. And real-life people don’t just inspire food product names, they also inspire food product icons.

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Sideburns were all the rage in the American Civil War well before Elvis Presley was even born. The popular male hair trend of bushy whiskers on the cheeks was originally called burnsides after the Union Army General Ambrose E. Burnside. His wildly different facial hair first caught people’s attention during a parade in Washington D.C. as he led his regiment of Rhode Island volunteers. By the 1880s, the name was switched to sideburns.

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Before there were selfies, painted or paper cutout silhouettes were the most affordable portraits that adorned people’s homes during the 18th century. Many people loved their silhouette selfies, but the man for who they were named after was anything but loved. France’s finance minister at the time, Étienne de Silhouette, had a reputation for being a frugal French man and was often seen making the cut-paper shadow portraits, himself, in his free time. Because of his cheap ways and favorite hobby, the French phrase “à la Silhouette“ came to mean “on the cheap” and the shadow portraits were named after Silhouette to poke fun at him as well.

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ommon-Words-That-Were-Inspired-by-Real-Life-PeoplePublic domain via wikimedia commons


Samuel A. Maverick, the 19th century Texan lawyer, had a client who settled a $1,200 debt with him in livestock—400 cattle worth. Instead of branding the cattle as his own, Maverick let the animals roam free and unbranded, a rookie rancher mistake. Little did he know that neighboring stockmen were stealing his stray cattle and branding them as their own. Once Maverick came to his senses, he sold the rest of his depleted herd. Soon, his last name was used to refer to people who preferred to go against the crowd and blaze their own trails.

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MaverickUniversal History Archive/Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock


John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich who lived from 1718 to 1792, may have created the classic lunch staple. It was no secret in town that Montagu’s vice was gambling. Legend has it that the gambler once spent an entire 24 hours at the gambling table eating nothing but slices of cold beef wedged between two pieces of toast. And if the story bears any truth, it’s how the sandwich was invented. Sandwich is easy to say, but do you know how to pronounce these 20 words correctly?

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SandwichMatt York/AP/REX/Shutterstock


It is illegal for a police officer to interrogate a suspected criminal without mirandizing (a.k.a reciting the Miranda warning) to them first. Ernesto A. Miranda, a criminal from the 1960s, is the reason why present-day police officers say during an arrest, “You have the right to remain silent …” followed by a list of their legal rights. After Miranda confessed to the charges against him for rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction. It had become evident in court that police officers had failed to inform Miranda of his legal rights before their interrogation began—now known as the Miranda warnings. But Miranda wasn’t let off the hook that easily. In his second trial, he was again convicted of kidnapping and rape based on other evidence and served 11 years in prison before his parole in 1972.

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Mirandizevita pakhai/shutterstock


You may have dated a casanova or two in your life. Giacomo Girolamo Casanova inspired the well-known term for a promiscuous male. The Italian adventurer and author wrote a memoir that bragged about his many “conquests” along his travels.

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DahliaAmazing snapshot/Shutterstock


The vibrant flower with colorful hues from Mexico was named after Anders Dahl, an 18th-century Swedish botanist. Dahl must have been a highly admired plant expert of his time because many botanists have been credited for bestowing his name upon the flower. Dahlias may be beautiful flowers, but do you know the most beautiful word in the English language? Hint—it’s not the word “beautiful.”

Ashley Lewis
Ashley is an Assistant Editor at Reader’s Digest. She received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. Before joining Reader’s Digest, she was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News and interned at Seventeen and FOX News. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.