Wanna Live Forever? Become A Noun

Sep 27, 2011
Originally published on March 7, 2012 11:30 am

Adam Cole: When I say "Henry Shrapnel, Jules Leotard, Robert Bunsen," you think — what?
Me: That they're inventors?
Adam: No. Better than that. Each one has become immortal. They're nouns!
Me: Is that a good thing, becoming a noun? ...
Adam: Are you kidding? It's a wonderful thing. A thing to sing about.
Me: You're going to sing?
Adam: If I may ...

Me: You see, becoming a noun is not always a plus.
Adam: You're beginning to convince me.

Samuel Maverick
Then let me keep going, cause I've got another example: Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836.
Adam: OK, what about him?
Me: Here's a guy who refused to brand his cattle, because he said he didn't want to cause them any pain. (Or maybe he was too busy buying and selling real estate.) But all his neighbors figure, well, he's just some stubborn, independent-minded loon who doesn't care what anybody thinks ...
Adam: A "maverick?"
Me: Yeah, when all he really was, was a guy who was nice to cows. The noun doesn't tell you that.

Charles Boycott
OK, my turn. I have one.
Me: Who?
Adam: Charles Boycott, an English army captain.
Me: Did he boycott somebody?
Adam: No! That's the thing! He was a real jerk, a land agent, collecting rents in County Mayo, Ireland. At some point, he tried to evict 11 tenants from their farms, and Charles Parnell, the great Irish land reformer, told his followers not to do business with Boycott. So Boycott wasn't a boycott advocate. He was a boycott victim. The word should have been "Parnelled."

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
I can top that.
Adam: No you can't.
Me: Yes, I can. How about Joseph Guillotin in France, who was, by the way, a doctor. He didn't invent the blade that cuts people's heads off. He was actually against the death penalty and simply suggested that swift decapitation would be more humane. But now people think it was his machine, and there's this rumor that he was himself guillotined. Which isn't true.
Adam: He died of natural causes?
Me: He did. And his family was so horrified to be connected to the "guillotine," they changed their name.

Amelia Bloomer And Lord Cardigan
I feel bad for Guillotin, but my heart really bleeds for people who gave their lives to politics, warfare and great causes, only to end up as articles of clothing.
Me: Excuse me?
Adam: Take Amelia Bloomer, suffragette, temperance champion, women's rights pioneer. We know her name now as a baggy pair of women's underpants.
Me: She didn't invent bloomers?
Adam: No, someone else did. She wrote them up in her newspaper but stopped wearing them in 1859, switching back to dresses, so she's remembered for clothes she didn't even stick with.
Me: Well, then weep for James Thomas Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan.
Adam: Why?
Me: Because here's a brave cavalry officer, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, watched his men cut down, butchered by the enemy, a man of action, a soldier, and what do we remember him for?
Adam: I think I know what's coming ...
Me: Yup, by some trick of fate, he is now a sweater with buttons down the front. I mean, really ...
Adam: Humilating.
Me: Exactly.

If you wish to see all these Nouns in the flesh, Time/Life has a photo essay on all these folks (and more). Special thanks to Maggie Starbard and Marina Dominguez for their help on our music video. And over-the-top thanks to Adam Cole for drawing, animating, composing, performing, singing (even the chorus parts are all him, quadrupled) the video. He will do weddings, bar mitzvahs, raves and nursing homes; just write me. I'd like to be his agent.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Now, the average American male lives for 76 years; the average female, around 80, and then slowly we tiptoe out of life and memory until one day nobody knows our name. Unless, says our science correspondent Robert Krulwich, unless we do something so unusual that we become a noun.

ROBERT KRULWICH: What I do know is my colleague here at NPR, Adam Cole, loves the idea of being a noun, so much so he's written a song about it.


ADAM COLE: (Singing) Well, from August down to Zeppelin, the world is full of eponyms. People die but names live on. Lamborghini made a car. Mason made a Mason jar. And Henry Shrapnel was the bomb. There's Volta, Watt and Newton, energetically disputing whose contribution most deserves top prize. For each scientific unit there's a genius attached to it. And when they get together they harmonize.

CHORUS: (Singing) When I'm six feet underground, when I up and die, I hope my name becomes a noun. I hope I'm objectified.

COLE: (Singing) Leotard has reached new heights. He has to wear his clothing tight or he'll get tangled up in his trapeze. General Burnside isn't skilled. He often gets his soldiers killed but his sideburns can't be beat. The Earl of Sandwich ups the ante with a snack that's nothing fancy; he'll never have to leave his poker game. Silhouette's a penny pincher. He won't pay for painted pictures so the cheapest kind of portraits bears his name.

CHORUS: (Singing) When I'm six feet underground, when I up and die, I hope my name becomes a noun. I hope I'm objectified.

KRULWICH: (Singing) Wait a second. Wait just a second.

CHORUS: (Singing) Robert Krulwich.

KRULWICH: (Singing) Yeah, it's me. Has it ever occurred to you that becoming a noun, it's just - it can be a little embarrassing?

COLE: (Singing) What do you mean?

KRULWICH: (Singing) Well, let's say your name is Cardigan and you're a man of many parts. But once you become a noun, then all you are is a sweater with buttons, forever.

CHORUS: (Singing) Oh.

KRULWICH: (Singing) Or you're a guy named Guillotine and your wife likes you. Your kids like you. But once you become a noun...


KRULWICH: (Singing) Are you familiar with a man named Dunce?

COLE: (Singing) My name is Jon Duns and I was well-respected once for my brilliant meditations on theology. But my rivals took offense and they said Dunce means someone dense, and those perverse reverse on entomology.

KRULWICH: (Singing) Now you know what I'm talking about.

CHORUS: (Singing) Now when I'm six feet underground, when I've up and died, I hope my name is not a noun and I'm never objectified. You know that, that would hurt my pride. I hope I'm never, ever objectified.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.