Adam: 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.
Me: 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.
Adam: OK, my turn. I have one.
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."
Me: 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
Adam: 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.
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 ...
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 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.