As the Olympics have drawn to a close, we might well ask with Juliet, “What’s in a name?” What people will likely remember from the Olympics are two singular athletic performances, that of swimmer Michael Phelps and runner Usain Bolt. So, did Usain Bolt have a Phelpsian Olympics or Phelps a Boltian? The potential words Phelpsian and Boltian are examples of eponyms (a linguistic and literary device in which a person’s name can come to symbolize, refer to, or otherwise lend itself to a quality or item.

On NBC’s Olympic coverage, Bob Costas even described Usain Bolt as the “poetically-named Bolt”, in that presumably his speed could be lightning-Boltian speed, but that sounds almost too convenient. What about all the extraordinarily lethargic Bolts out there? More coincidence than poetry, it would seem. For example, is there a prolific writer Jurgen Blog out there (or Jurgen Web Log) who will comment on my entry? It’s like meeting an enlisted man in the US Army named Paul Sergeant and finding out his rank is Sergeant.

Let’s examine what it means to be Phelpsian. It is certainly unhelpful to say that Phelpsian means “of, relating to, resembling, or suggesting American swimmer Michael Phelps (b. 1985)”. It might go as follows:

Grammatical class:
August 2008, Beijing Olympics
1: of, relating to, or aspiring to Olympic greatness, particularly in water, particularly while many people are watching, possibly on a four-year cycle
2: having qualities of strength and endurance, as well as a long torso and protruding ears
3: characterized by incredible, suspenseful finishes in linear races, whether individually or part of a team, especially wearing very tight outfits
4: arguably better than individuals and achievements characterized as Spitzian
5. characterized as once-in-a-lifetime, or every thirty years or so, especially a high-level achievement, especially while breaking records in a pool constructed to break sometimes long-held records
5: relating to a diet consisting of tens of thousands of calories per day
6: someone who looks suspiciously like NFL Giants quarterback Eli Manning, but with better abs

Obviously people’s interpretations will vary and an entire linguistic community can settle on a definition better than I, but eponyms are tricky in that they come to life only from an achievement or quality of a person’s life, and a whole person is quite complicated.

What about other eponyms and their fate? We all know about Freudian slips, and most have some passing knowledge about what those might indicate. Some will reflect on the Faustian ratings decision NBC made to cover a Beijing Olympics without taking advantage of the enormous audience to educate (better, anyway) the world about the darker side of China and communism. Film aficionados understand (though noone completely) what a Tarkovskian cinematic experience is. People can hazard guesses at einsteinium or a newton and have a suspicion about an Amber Alert, the Jarvik artificial heart, or Reaganomics. When I say I’m more of a Lennon-Beatles than a McCartney-Beatles when it comes to music generally, I think that my taste can be gathered by many. But who remembers the individuals behind Dow Jones or Doppler radar (factoid: Philadelphia possesses a Doppler 10,000, which I assume is thousands of times better than your local station); what about Mount Everest or the Stanley Cup? Most of the above still retain the capitalization from the proper name from which they were derived and so the eponymous person is generally still there in a way, but what about bloomers, leotards, and sideburns? People’s achievements or unique qualities can become condensed to a moment of their lives such that the entire person is lost to the usefulness of some arbitrary string of sounds. In a sense, some words behave like gravestones, and noone visits.

What responsibility does one have in using an eponym? Do people even have a right to their own names, and its use? Consider the recent history of Oregonian Samantha Buck, owner of Sam Buck’s coffee shop. She was sued by Starbucks to cease and desist use of her name to the shop she owned. “Sam Buck’s” was too close to the intellectual property of “Starbucks”. Starbucks won that case! I suspect that Kafka would not have appreciated being such an integral part of refrigerator magnetic poetry kits and the resultant ‘poetry’. (By the way, I have a running tally of twelve conversations in which someone used “Kafkaesque” and none of them have been pleasant.) In addition, sometimes words are misleading. My favorite history of psychology text is, of course, the Boring History of Experimental Psychology (Edwin Boring, that is). Also, as an undergraduate psychology major, my favorite definition of culture was authored by Goodenough (pronounced good-ee-know).

So, will others find such a term as Phelpsian or Boltian acceptable and use it beyond this Olympic cycle? Personally, I rather like the sound of Phelpsian (or at least phelpsian). It just sounds pleasant. But even if Phelpsian or Boltian become common, will we remember the actual people Phelps and Bolts, beyond their ties to the words and their usefulness? What does that say about our humanism (or at least our language’s capacity for humanism) to adopt a word based on a person’s name, only to discard later the actual person from our social memory?

About the Author

Christopher Ramey

Christopher H. Ramey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology at Drexel University, specializing in cognitive psychology.

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Did Usain Bolt have a Phelpsian Olympics or Phelps a Boltian?

As the Olympics have closed, we ask with Juliet, "What's in a name?"