Jonathan Gruber’s surname has the potential of taking on a life of its own, based on historic precedents – if only a few – whereby a person’s name morphs into a more generally recognized word in the English vocabulary.
The most famous example is Captain Charles Boycott, the odious agent of an absentee landlord in Ireland who would evict tenant farmers, only to discover that no other tenants would replace them.
Then there is the erstwhile Massachusetts governor Eldridge Gerry, who is 1812 decided to redraw the district boundaries in his state in a way to help his party in the upcoming elections. At some point, his absurd geographical reconfiguration resembled a salamander, and the term “Gerrymandering” was born. The practice, like the term describing it, remains a dubious part of our country’s political legacy – a pejorative term meaning to divide up a voting district in order to give one’s own party an unfair advantage.
There are other familiar eponymous terms – i.e. “named” after a specific person. Machiavellian, for example, is synonymous with being deceitful, deceptive, and opportunistic, emboldened by a pessimistic view of human nature. Perhaps Gruberian could be considered a modern-day spin-off. Another eponym is the Pompadour, the hairstyle named after French aristocrat Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, though we haven’t seen a popular rendition of one since Elvis left the building.
Two eponymous terms came into being in the late 1700s. Franz Anton Mesmer was a German physicist famous for his theory of animal magnetism – the flow of energy between people. Now “mesmerize” means to hypnotize; the word is no stranger to die-hard political fans. Around the same time on the continent, an unpopular French minister of finance named Silhouette reportedly taxed his upper-class countrymen to such an extent that they had to forego commissioning oil portraits of themselves, and settled for the less expensive practice of having their profiles cut from black paper. We use the current term “silhouette” to indicate a side view, but in the larger sense it was meant to imply anything made on the cheap.
Then there was John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, a gambling man who liked to fortify himself at the card table with meals of meat served between two pieces of bread. This unique preference was admired by his fellow gamblers, who, legend has it, shouted to the kitchen staff, “I’ll have the same as Sandwich.” (“Hold the mayo” came later!)
The list goes on, with terms like “diesel,” for Rudolf Diesel, the father of the diesel engine. It has lately been used to connote anything that is “cool.” In the same realm, but hardly as laudatory, the word “Edsel,” originally a promising Ford model named after a grandson, has been used derisively since its hugely disappointing roll-out to imply a colossal failure.
It’s very rare, however, to have an eponym that is a verb. But a recent entry – to “bork” – fills the bill all too well. It even has the distinction of sounding like what it attempts to do. Named for Judge Robert Bork, a conservative icon whose nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 by Ronald Reagan was crushed by zealous liberal objectors, it means to systematically attack a candidate or public figure, especially in the press. Watch for the word to resurface in the event that there is a pushback against the nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general.
It doesn’t take a Machiavellian mind to see the possibilities for definitions of “to Gruber,” which could mean any one of several related things:
- Deceiving people by taking advantage of their perceived stupidity.
- Lying about the nature of legislation in order to pass it.
- Demeaning Americans to assemblies of superior fellow academics.
In fact, “gruber” could come to describe just about anything said by anyone who thinks he is better than anybody else. Likely, there would be enough occasions for it to become a popular descriptive term in American politics.
Of course, Professor Jonathan Gruber of MIT is himself not very popular these days, though he was when he raked in millions advising the Obama administration and various state governments about how to model health care plans. But now nobody in his party, from the president on down (or up), seems to know who he is. Obama has emphatically stated that Jonathan Gruber was never really a part of his “team.” Maybe all those meetings between the two in the Oval office were only to seek Gruber’s engineering advice on solar energy for the White House!
So let’s just see what happens in the weeks ahead. Perhaps the president can “gruber” a little to fool us into believing that yet another amnesty for illegals is good for America. Maybe with a little “grubering” he can convince stupid Americans into agreeing that the Keystone XL pipeline will be the dirty straw that breaks the back of any efforts to save the planet. Anything is possible for an Uber Gruber.