By Mark Peters
Tebow is one of the most successful words of 2011, referring mainly to the post-touchdown pose of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow: just as people plank, they Tebow too. However, the verbing of Tebow’s name is just one example of the popular sport of eponymization. Sports fans love turning athletes into eponyms: words derived from names, like boycott and shrapnel.
A few of the best sports eponyms have debuted on comedy shows. On a recent episode of The League, Pete was dismayed that his friend Kevin bought a gun, fearing his buddy would Plaxidentally shoot himself, in the style of self-shooting doofus Plaxico Burress. Earlier this year on Curb Your Enthusiasm, when a ball went through the legs of Larry David, his exasperated pitcher said, “You Bucknered it!” Thankfully, later in the episode, Bill Buckner himself redeemed his 1986 World Series performance by failing to Buckner a falling baby. But like so much raw language, most would-be eponyms appear on Twitter, where people get Tebowed, Sterned, Favred, and LeBroned. Sports are an eponym magnet.
For example, when Albert Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels, many folks said something along the lines of “Pujols just totally LeBroned the Cardinals, and yes I did just use a name as a verb.”
Of course, this references LeBron James’ famous departure from Cleveland in 2010, which made him a national pariah and a Cleveland anti-Christ. Player movement seems to bring out the creativity in fans. When NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, one writer asked, “When a trade is vetoed, can we call it being ‘Sterned’?” Another took the topic in a more romantic direction: “If a guy gets denied by a girl, it will be forever known as getting David Sterned”
For some reason, Tebow seems to be the Michael Jordan of eponyms, not only spawning eponyms of his own but allowing others to be eponymized. After the Broncos’ December 11th defeat of the Bears, many could not resist giving others the Tebow treatment. One disgusted tweeter wrote, “Hey @ESPN, the Bears were not ‘Tebowed.’ They were ‘Marion Barbered,’ in which Barber disregards one of the simplest rules in football.” Another commented on Broncos legend and current executive John Elway, who is known to have less than perfect faith in Tebow’s unusual quarterbacking style: “We all know what Tebowing is. Elwaying is: ‘giving high-fives without joy.’” Later in the week, when Bear Sam Hurd was busted with enough drugs to kill a real bear, jokes like this begin to appear: “Droppin to one knee and praying in random places = Tebowing. Droppin $25k a key to get the whole city of Chicago high = Hurding”.
Politicians also inspire a dictionary-load of eponyms. Dan Savage’s unprintable staining of Rick Santorum’s name is the ultimate example, but just about every candidate or office-holder gets smeared in some way, especially after a gaffe. For example, after his memorable Oops-gate, many verbed Rick Perry: “Oh crap, I Rick Perry’d my dad’s birthday… He is gonna be pissed.” Dictators are fair game too. In Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer discussed Mubaraktic: a perfect adjective for someone who clings to power, even as everyone and their mother want them out.
Entertainment is another eponym-palooza. Why get drunk and wasted when you can get Lohaned and Winehoused? In honor of Kim Kardashian’s obscenely hyped and preposterously short marriage, Weird Al Yankovic tweeted, “72 Days is now an official unit of time known as a Kardash.” Alec Baldwin’s eviction from a flight—for refusing to stop playing Words with Friends—led to many comments like this: “Lady almost got Alec Baldwined off my flight over urgent phone calls regarding the location of a blue cable knit sweater.” One of the most successful such eponyms in recent years was Kanye: a verb meaning to steal someone’s thunder, possibly by grabbing their mic, like what Kanye West did to Taylor Swift at the 2009 Video Music Awards. This seems to have staying power, as people use it during online commentary of virtually any awards show. It doesn’t hurt that West continues to be an obnoxious jerk.
In fact, punishing jerks is one of the main motivations for eponymizing, which explains why eponyms are big in the sports world. To many, jock is just another work for a bully, and plenty of athletes, coaches, announcers, and owners sure look like bona fide jerks. Others get treated like jerks for failing on the field (like Buckner), failing to play the way people want them to play (like Tebow), or just being rich guys who play with balls for a living. Justified or not, vengeance-seeking fans probably feel much better after making Brett Favre’s name a synonym for being indecisive or texting your junk.
Sadly, there’s little justice to be found in enduring eponyms. The word tawdry is derived from the presumably un-tawdry St. Audrey (the name evolved from St. Audrey laces, which were shoddily made). Orwellian language is the type of doublespeak Orwell opposed. Language change comes from the unpredictable hive mind, not the will of a single author or a handful of word-makers. Most new eponyms fade as quickly as the news they inspired them, but the word-coining urge endures. We can’t help trying to make our own mark on the language, while attempting to immortalize the foibles of the Plaxicos and Tebows among us.