December 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words by John Bemelmans Marciano

There are rare moments in history when a nepotism case uses his or her power for good. This is true of John Bemelmans Marciano, who has been bred over generations to write delightful illustrated books, in much the same way that Maremma sheepdogs gambol out of the womb already prepared to be gentle with lambs but ferocious with wolves.

His Anonyponymous, a (very) selective encyclopedia (or rather, “opinionated dictionary”) of the crazy stories of Candido Jacuzzi, Patrick Hooligan, Jules Léotard, Charles Boycott, and their ilk has all the charm of his famous grandfather’s Madeline books -- although, with adult touches, especially in the bits about de Sade and Sacher-Masoch and good old seed-spilling Onan. It’s a fascinating topic, and Marciano manages to be breezy and whimsical without losing any historical accuracy. Of course, however rigorously researched, some of the most famous namesake tales are apocryphal. But in a sense, their truth doesn’t matter: “In many cases, the legend itself is what’s important. Whether or not Chauvin [chauvinist] existed is meaningless for its development as a word. This is true of more than folklore; historians gossip, too, and not just William Batarde.”

Still, everything Marciano includes here is -- to his knowledge -- historically accurate, other than the long-loved tale of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the “patron saint of the anonyponymous” who is “famous for his very obscurity.” The legend that the earl put his meat inside his bread to get through a day-long gambling binge appears to have been invented by a French travel writer visiting London, who was repeating “something juicy” he had heard about one of the king’s ministers, not poor Sandwich, who was a non-risk-taking hard worker. When this came to light, speculation had it that he invented the sandwich to work through the night. But no one really knows.

We do know about janitors, though. When the two-faced god Janus was demoted from father of all the gods to the minor god of doors, his attendants -- that is, the doorkeepers -- were called janitors. And we know about pants, although I’ll let you wait to read the book for the story of how the unmarried Byzantine doctor Pantaleon, patron saint of physicians, bachelors, and torture victims, came to lend his name to long red pantaloons. (Hint: it involves Venetian actors.) And we know about the facial hair of General Ambrose Burnside, who sported a “muttonchops-to-mustache” style that (thankfully) “has yet to come back into vogue.”

Like all of the best (very) selective encyclopedias/ opinionated dictionaries, Anonyponymous has rigorous author’s notes about why certain stories are included or omitted, as well as how the stories all fit together into the bigger histories of folklore, people, legacies, and words. Marciano anticipates and answers reader questions (such as, why and how do certain words survive while others die? And, how does anonyponymity operate across different world languages?), and he has a word geek’s love of the chase. His interest in dead or dying eponyms (“pulling a brodie,” “lucy stoner,” “pinchbeck”) is matched by a vibrant sense of the contemporary -- he describes Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford as “the original Brangelina” -- and a passion for the ridiculous.

“Making a Bemelmans” doesn’t yet mean “writing and illustrating a charming book,” but some day it might. (Ludwig Bemelmans’s 1941 travel book, The Donkey Inside, generated a term unique to Ecuadorian Spanish -- bemelmans: a foreigner who makes fun of the natives.) But I was so into Anonyponymous that I Elizabeth Bachnered six or seven times while I was reading it, and that’s really saying something.

Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words by John Bemelmans Marciano
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1596916532
160 Pages