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French names immortalised in history

Personal origins to some of the more unusual words in the French language

While Latin or Greek are the root of many words, a handful are derived from the surnames of actual French people who made them famous. Thus, through the wheels of invention, some proper nouns have made their way into the language. Here are a few:



Eugène-René Poubelle was a French lawyer who later became a prefect and city administrator and, as such, introduced dustbins to Paris. He made their use in the city compulsory, despite opposition from the capital’s slumlords and rag-and-bone men.

He decreed that owners of buildings must provide residents with three covered containers to hold household refuse. The refuse was to be sorted into compostable items, paper and cloth, and crockery and shells.

Poubelle also campaigned successfully for direct drainage following a resurgence of cholera in 1892.


The execution machine most famously used in the French Revolution to behead Marie Antoinette was named after Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

The doctor served in the national assembly and, although opposed to the death penalty, he proposed the tool as a humane alternative to beheading by sword or axe, which was often botched. In addition, beheading was reserved for the aristocracy and commoners were usually hanged.

A law was later passed in 1789 which made decapitation by guillotine the only method of state execution.

Guillotin did not invent the device. It was created in Yorkshire in the 16th century and called the Halifax Gibbet.

Later, during the guillotine hysteria of the 1790s, he tried to distance himself from the machine and his family petitioned the government to change its name. When that did not work, the family changed its name.


The French penchant for tobacco is well known. It was Jean Nicot (1530- 1600), the French ambassador to Portugal, who introduced tobacco to France in 1561, when he sent tobacco seeds and powdered leaves.

Nicotine is derived from the flowering tobacco plant of the genus Nicotiana, named after Nicot.


Today, le chauvinisme has misogynistic overtones but this was not always the case.

The word originated with Nicolas Chauvin of Rochefort, a soldier fighting for Napoléon’s army who showed extreme patriotism.

The legend of Chauvin – who did not actually exist – was used after the fall of Napoléon, when le chauvinisme was applied to ridicule staunchly patriotic soldiers of the Empire, who continued to blindly glorify nationalism.

Later it was used to refer to any form of bigotry and in particular, male chauvinism.


Jacquard print refers to an elaborate diamond pattern woven into fabric that was originally produced on a Jacquard loom – the earliest programmable loom, which wove patterned silk automatically. Joseph Marie Jacquard, the loom’s inventor, lived from 1752 to 1834 in Lyon.

The Jacquard loom’s operational system of using punched cards inspired the development of English engineer Charles Babbage’s digital programmable computer in the 19th century. 


The hot-air balloon was named Montgolfier after its inventors.

Brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier gave man the gift of flight when they realised that heated air trapped inside a lightweight bag caused it to gently rise.

The first untethered manned Montgolfier balloon flight took place in November 1783, when science teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes floated over Paris for a total of 25 minutes.

Originally, King Louis XVI had decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but de Rozier and d’Arlandes petitioned successfully for the honour.


Etienne de Silhouette was finance minister in the 18th century to King Louis XV, known for his unpopular taxes on the rich and the nobility.

He was notorious for his hard-line austerity and penny-pinching, so à la Silhouette was a term used to denote anything cheap or austere. De Silhouette’s hobby of cutting shadow portraits out of paper, as a cheaper alternative to painted or sculpted portraits, was given the name silhouette.


Rocambole was a sprightly adventurer, brought to life in the 19th-century novels of prolific writer Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. The escapades of his character Rocambole shaped the plot of each book, resulting in the word rocambolesque, meaning fantastic or extraordinary.


Louis Pasteur was a French chemist responsible for inventing germ theory: the idea that food goes off because of micro-organisms rapidly multiplying in liquids, such as milk. His idea to heat milk, wine and other liquids to kill off harmful micro-organisms became known as pasteurisation.


Béchamel, a flour-based sauce, is attributed to Marquis Louis de Béchameil, steward and favourite of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

During this period, a sauce made from meat juices, shallots, vegetables and milk was so often served in court that it took Béchameil’s name, though it is unlikely he made it himself. The inclusion of milk gave the sauce luxury status as milk was difficult to keep.


The mix of almonds and caramelised sugar was invented by French chef Clément Jaluzot, who served it as a dessert during a 1636 dinner with the king hosted by Jaluzot’s master, Duke César de Choiseul.

The duke pretended to the king that it was his invention, and the dessert came to be called le Praslin, as Duke César was also the Count of Plessis-Praslin. Over time “le Praslin” became “les pralines”.

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