Elementary, my dear Watson

Even though I love reading—I do watch my fair share of television. One of my favorite shows is Elementary. What’s not to like: Sherlock Holmes, Lucy Liu and murder mystery all in one neat package. But what I like most about it is that at least once per episode I have to look up a word Sherlock uses. The man is British you see, with a vast vocabulary. But then, it’s a TV show, so it’s possible the screen-writers are assisting.

The other day (I confess I’m a bit behind with watching) Sherlock used the word “quisling.” The guy he was talking to didn’t blink—obviously, he belonged the quisling-is-part-of-my-vocabulary cohort of the population. I guess it’s just me and my husband who have been under-educated.

Every time this happens I am a little annoyed. It’s nothing but envy really; I’d love to be able to string sentences together like Sherlock. Still, the question remained: what on earth is a quisling? Turns out, it’s not something you want to be called.

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politician, who founded the fascist party in Norway in 1933. He was the prime minister of a pro-Nazi government from 1942-1945. After the war, he was sentenced to death for high treason, amongst other charges. A quisling therefore, is a traitor—a collaborator with the enemy.

“Quisling” is an eponym: a person, thing or place after whom/which something is named. Our language has many of them. If you’re lucky, and you invented something cool, your name may live on forever. Like the Diesel engine, the Jacuzzi, a leotard, or pasteurization.

Back in the day, a physician could describe some terrible affliction and lend his/her name to it. Like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Even though these people did important work, it’s not the most pleasant way to be remembered. When you’re suffering from a bout of salmonella, you won’t be interested in knowing it was named after a vet called Dr. Salmon. Actually, according to Wikipedia it was his assistant who discovered the bacteria, but Smithella doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

I couldn’t find many examples of words like “quisling” – where the name itself becomes the type of person you’re referring to. (And to answer your question, yes, I actually waste time thinking about stuff like this…). One can be a Don Juan, or a Casanova—or a Sherlock for that matter. It must be pretty awesome to have written a book that’s so well-known, one of your characters becomes the eponym. Like Jekyll and Hyde, or a Scrooge. We refer to an Odyssey, a Faustian bargain, or Big Brother, and even though we may not have read the books in question, the meaning of the words is ingrained in our language.

Not many writers will accomplish this, but don’t let that keep you from trying. Your next literary work could provide us with a new addition to our language—and as a writer, I think there are very few things as cool as that!

 

 

 

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