De-eponymising technical terms

By dkl9, written 2023-326, revised 2023-326 (0 revisions)


Concepts and objects may be eponymous, i.e. named for their discoverers. I've noticed this is especially common in maths and biology, but it happens somewhat in many fields. This pattern is harmful for multiple reasons.

People's names are effectively meaningless. A technical term built out of simpler terms, not including proper nouns like that, reveals some of its meaning from the component words. The mere mention of "comparative advantage" or "predictive processing" gives you some idea of what it is, without prior knowledge, just by looking at the words. That serves well as a reminder if you've studied it before. You could get no such insight were they instead called "Ricardo's principle" or the "Rao-Ballard process".

Many researchers specialise deeply into few fields, so the presence of their name on a concept gives a hint as to what subfield the concept comes from — you can tell that a "Cauchy sequence" is probably something in real or complex analysis. But many others do not specialise as much — the "Euler function" could refer to anything, unless you already know about it. Also, that kind of intuition depends on learning about many specific researchers for whom things might be named.

In practice, names used in eponymy often fail to correctly credit the discoverer. Insofar as eponymy honours those who discover, it's given — at least, used to be given, at least in English — disproportionately to Europeans (or, in more recent times, Americans) and men, perpetuating perceptions of European (respectively, male) supremacy. You may not care about that, but some people do.

§ Towards the solution

We avoid all those problems by building technical terms out of preexisting words, meaningfully.

As an example of what I'm proposing, here are intuitively-meaningful alternatives to some of the eponyms I found in a calculus textbook. For some concepts, a term that transparently encompasses the whole matter is necessarily long and cumbersome, in which cases I also give a shorter, less precise alternative. Terms marked with * are already in common use as an accepted synonym for the eponym.

EponymFull termShort term
Cartesian coordinatesrectangular coordinates *
Euler's number (e)exponential constant *
Dirichlet functionrational indicator function
Charles's lawtemperature-volume gas lawlaw of volumes *
Newton's methoditerative first-order differential rootfindingdifferential rootfinding
Rolle's theoremstationary point theorem
witch of Agnesiasymptotically-tangent osculating cubic curvetangent-osculating curve
Leibniz notationvisible-differential notation
Riemann sumpartition-sample sum
Simpson's rulequadratic numerical integration
Euler's methodbasic first-order ODE numerical integrationbasic ODE integration
Newton's law of coolingtemperature-proportional conduction
Gompertz functionsemi-logistic population curve
Bernoulli differential equationequation of the form y' + P(x) y = Q(x) yn