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I am aware of great debate over whether a name, in general, is a word in any language. For purposes of this question, let's take the negative side of this debate. For certain, I would never claim that my nom de plume of "cobaltduck" could be considered a word. Nor do I claim that something like "Jason" or "Carl" is a word.

What about a name when applied to an eponymous invention? There are many objects and ideas out there named after the inventor. Let's consider just a couple examples:

  1. The Ferris wheel, invented by American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris.
  2. The Diesel engine, invented by German engineer Rudolph Christian Karl Diesel.
  3. The Wankel engine, invented by German engineer Felix Heinrich Wankel.
  4. The Heimlich maneuver, developed by American surgeon Henry Judah Heimlich.
  5. And giving credit where due- inspired by a question by user Sadiq- the Schottky diode, invented by German physicist Walter H. Schottky.

Can any of ferris, diesel, wankel, heimlich, or schottky be called a word? If so, when and why?

I can see an argument for at least one definitely functioning stand-alone:

Today in health class we learned how to do the heimlich.
Look! Alice is choking. Quick, somebody give her the heimlich.

And another is a maybe:

I'm thinking of buying a pickup, and can't decide whether to get a diesel.
I need to fill this rig up with diesel. (referring to the fuel)

But another just doesn't work at all without the second part:

Did you hear about Alice? She went to the fair and got stuck on the ferris.

The others are also less certain, i.e. I don't know enough about the vernacular to know whether a motorcycle builder would ponder, "Should we put a wankel or a v-twin on this baby?" or one electrical technician would ask another, "Can you hand me that schottky over there?"

To summarize: When, if ever, is the name portion of a name-object phrase describing something and its inventor, considered a word?

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    Perhaps your question makes a nonsense of the idea that a name is not a word? – Mick Oct 7 '16 at 14:06
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    That's really a legal question. Of course, Ferris et al are words. They aren't sounds on a tape. They are proper nouns. It's just that they are part of a compound noun: Ferris wheel. A compound noun made up of a "proper"noun and a regular noun. – Lambie Oct 7 '16 at 14:07
  • Your Ferris example isn't really a fair comparison. Obviously there are many motorists who might say I can't decide whether to get a diesel (though you won't be likely to hear I can't decide whether to get a petrol). By the same token, a fairground operator discussing a future purchase might quite naturally say I'm thinking about getting a Ferris if I can afford it. – FumbleFingers Oct 7 '16 at 14:20
  • This is one of the reasons Professor Crystal coined the term 'lexeme' for 'string comprising a unit of meaning', like these two: {run, runs, ran, running}; {kick the bucket} (when meaning 'die'). Wikipedia prefers the term 'multiword expression (MWE)' for the latter type, including [open, at least,] compounds. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 7 '16 at 14:21
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    A better question is when such names become common nouns. The answer is that they become common nouns when people begin to use them in syntactic positions reserved for common nouns. – GoldenGremlin Oct 7 '16 at 14:47
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The ontology of words is a vexed issue in the philosophy of language.

We count different things as words in different contexts. Sometimes by "word" we mean something listed in the dictionary, other times we mean by "word" something uttered by a speaker.

Sometimes we count "color" and "colour" as the same word, but other times we don't. Sometimes we say that "bank" (qua riverside) and "bank" (qua financial institution) are two different words that just happen to share a phonic-graphic form. Other times we say that there is just one word, "bank", with different meanings. Sometimes an inscription of "legsltion" might count as the word "legislation", other times it might not.

Given the great variability in the application conditions of the word "word", it is best not to ask whether something is a word unless one has clearly identified one's criteria for wordhood.


I think a more interesting question is: When does the proper name portion of an eponymous invention name become a common noun?

The answer is—analytically—that names become common nouns when a significant number of speakers begin to use them in syntactic positions reserved for common nouns. This is not terribly informative, though, and the next question to ask is why speakers might begin to use names in common noun positions?

There are a few possibilities, but here are two:

First, speakers might start using ellipsis on expressions like "a Diesel engine" and "some Diesel fuel", rendering them "a Diesel" and "some Diesel," respectively. If enough people do this, for long enough, the word "Diesel" might just become a common noun.

Second, something like deferred interpretation might be happening with the names. Deferred interpretation is the process whereby we use a word to refer to something which is related to what we'd normally use the word to refer to. For example, "Picasso" normally refers to the person Pablo Picasso. But we often use the word "Picasso" as a common noun to refer to works created by Pablo Picasso, as when we say "There are five Picassos in the Louvre." Something similar could be happening with "Diesel", "Heimlich," etc.

Maybe these two processes work together, maybe not. Maybe there is another explanation.

As to the question of why some names turn into common nouns (for example, "Diesel"), while others don't (for example, "Ferris"), there might be no definite reason. That said, maybe sociohistorical research would turn something up.

  • ISTM that a related question is “when can you use one component of a compound word to refer to the entire compound?”  For example, “peregrine” is defined as “having a tendency to wander”, but some consider it to be short for “peregrine falcon.”  But nobody would refer to a whooping crane as “a whooping”. – Scott Oct 16 '16 at 1:35
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To be definite, let's say something is an English word if it is listed in the current Oxford English Dictionary. With that definition, these are words:

Schottke, Diesel, Wankel, carl

and these are not:

Ferris, Heimlich, Jason

But, on the other hand, I would say they are words the first time some speaker uses them, even if not listed in any dictionary.

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