The latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine has, as usual, a lively letters section, and I thought the following exchange was worth posting:

Admiral Grace Hopper’s name may replace John C. Calhoun’s on the college where I lived some 70 years ago, but she is not its “namesake.” Your headline has it backwards. The college itself is Admiral Hopper’s namesake, just as the university is Elihu Yale’s. She and he are eponymous.

Dick Mooney ’47
New York, NY

We paused over the headline, for exactly that reason. But our house dictionary, Merriam-Webster, has ruled that a “namesake” can be either party. Interestingly (at least for us word geeks), the quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary also have it both ways.—Eds.

I had the same reaction when I saw the headline in the previous issue, and I’m glad to have it cleared up, with references to two of my favorite dictionaries!


  1. I wonder if Dick Mooney is sore at being a pawn in the editor’s game of linguistic gotcha. OTOH if the editors had put a footnote after the original headline, they would have been even more patronising clever-clogses.

  2. What do you mean? I know that some usage advice goes along the lines “if you are not sure that something is correct, some of your readers will be too, so don’t use it even if dictionaries say it’s alright”. Are you of this school of thought?

  3. January First-of-May says

    I personally wasn’t sure that “namesake” could go the other way (i.e. I thought it might have only been correct in the direction that they presumably used in the headline).

    (This is probably because my first association for the word is “Upstart Eclipses Namesake”, a Twelve Mile Circle post about places more famous than the original places they were named for.)

  4. “Are you of this school of thought?” — Kind of. If a crankish pedant writes in complaining that you’ve broken a zombie rule, the solution is to ignore them and their letter. The editors have framed the exchange in a way that makes clear that they don’t regard Mooney as a crankish pedant. But it is plausible that, on reading the letters page, Mooney may feel embarrassed at being publicly refuted, rather than grateful for being enlightened.

  5. Well, I’m pretty sensitive to the “gotcha” thing, when editors abuse their powers to make correspondents look bad, and this didn’t set off any bells at all. I mean, they start off with “We paused over the headline, for exactly that reason”; in other words, “we had exactly the same reaction,” which is hardly an attack. They responded pretty much how I would have in similar circumstances: “I understand your point because I felt the same way, but look, it turns out [blah blah blah] — isn’t that interesting?” And it was, at least to me.

  6. Huh. My response is not “better avoid it!” but “this is my chance to establish a usage!” — and to use it the way I like, repeatedly and with gusto. Faint heart ne’er won first citation.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    One problem with a prescriptivist simplification that uses “namesake” for only one side of the relationship is the lack of a widely understood term for the other side of the relationship. (Confusion as to which side is which might persist – in my experience lots of lawyers get muddled over who is obligor v obligee in a given context but at least there you have the sense that once I figure out which one is obligor I know the right title for the other.) “Eponym” doesn’t work as part of a pair with “namesake,” largely because they are of radically different registers. But even beyond that, many/most people (raises hand …) know eponym primarily as part of “eponymous,” but since that often in common parlance focuses more on the name-sharing relationship, it doesn’t, at least in my idiolect, leave me with any clarity as to which side of “eponymous” connection is the eponym, and if there’s a fancy Greek-sounding term for the other side, it’s not one I know.

  8. The Hopper and Yale cases featured here are perhaps unproblematical because of the specifics of those cases — people don’t get named after buildings or universities. But the claim in the Yale Alumni Magazine editor’s counterargument — that either party may be termed “namesake” — is more general. That is a problem when the two parties are, say, two people or two places. If the two places have identical names (rather than one being New the other), a reader might not know which was founded or named first, and so might be misled if a writer calls the older place a “namesake”. A case in point is the one you mention in your post of 5 May 2017 “Wyoming”: if someone said that the Wyoming Valley is a namesake of the state, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the state had the name first.

  9. Well, that’s an unavoidable consequence of situations like this, where some people understand a word in a limited sense and others in a more general one. Language is messy.

  10. I’m curious about the “sake” in “namesake”. It says here that the word is from a phrase “the name’s sake” or “his name’s sake”, but I’m having trouble imagining how that phrase was used exactly in a way that led to a new word “namesake”.

    “I am named for his name’s sake”?

  11. For one’s name(‘s) sake, often abbreviated to for name sake meant ‘out of respect for one’s name’. I suppose the modern meaning of namesake (documented since the 17th century) developed via the misinterpretation of sentences like “I shall help you for your name sake”. If I say that to a man whose name is Charles Needy, whose brother William Needy is a great friend of mine, Charles may understand (correctly) that I’m helping him out of my regard for his brother (and the surname Needy), but infer (incorrectly) that namesake refers to his brother and means ‘anyone with the same name’.

  12. So “namesake” belongs to the short list of erroneous concatenations in English that also includes “culprit,” “helpmeet,” and “derring-do”?

  13. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Culprit: I did not know that. From the OED:

    “Known (as a word) only from 1678. According to the legal tradition, found in print shortly after 1700, culprit was not originally a word, but a fortuitous or ignorant running together of two words (the fusion being made possible by the abbreviated writing of legal records), viz. Anglo-Norman culpable or Latin culpabilis ‘guilty’, abbreviated cul., and prit or prist = Old French prest ‘ready’. It is supposed that when the prisoner had pleaded ‘Not guilty’, the Clerk of the Crown replied with ‘Culpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille,’, i.e. ‘Guilty: [and I am] ready to aver our indictment’; that this reply was noted on the roll in the form cul. prist, etc.; and that, at a later time, after the disuse of Law French, this formula was mistaken for an appellation addressed to the accused.”

    I should note that “bill” is still used in this sense of indictment in some jurisdictions.

  14. Culprit: I did not know that.

    I didn’t either. Fascinating!

  15. Then there’s the writ of fieri facias, made out to a sheriff instructing him to seize the property of someone who owes money because of a court judgment. This is abbreviated to fi-fa /ˈfaɪˈfeɪ/, but was also used in the 16-17C to refer to someone who is very drunk, from its traditional pronunciation, quasi fiery-facious.

  16. David Marjanović says

    “Make it so!”

  17. Isaiah 40:3: “A voice cries, in the wilderness open ye up YHWH’s way, make ye clear in the desert a path for our God.” The parallelism is unambiguous, but the image of “a voice crying in the wilderness”, as the KJV erroneously read it, is so striking that to this day it has not been fully relinquished.

  18. January First-of-May says

    as the KJV erroneously read it

    Not merely the KJV, but also, e.g., the Synodal translation into Russian (глас вопиющего в пустыне); in fact it looks like the erroneous reading might go back to the New Testament itself (the phrase is quoted there several times, apparently always without the clarifying parallelism).

    As far as I can tell from the context (and exegeses), the early Christians (or whoever wrote the relevant parts of the New Testament) might have preferred the “voice in the wilderness” interpretation to make it match John the Baptist, who arrived from the wilderness.

  19. Is it an erroneous reading or two readings? The parallelism is in the MT…

  20. The word is used in the headline “Grace Hopper: Yale’s Newest College Namesake” as if it were a title. It sounds strange to me (I do not say “you are an addressee today” when I mean “there is a letter for you”). Maybe it is just because I am a Russian speaker. Ot maybe they were influenced by its frequent use as a technical term during the discussion. The principles in the report by Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (here) all use this word: “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?”, etc.

    P.S. “an addressee”, “Yale’s … namesake”
    “His namesake” normally does not mean “one of people after whom his belongings are named”

  21. Drasvi, it’s “Yale’s college namesake”, not “Yale’s namesake”, so the equivalent would be “his belonging namesake”, which makes more sense, though “belonging” doesn’t work as well attributively as “college” does.

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