Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gave it to human beings. A Titan and a son of Tapetos, he had been put to work by Zeus to make men out of clay and water. Prometheus was appalled by the misery of the creatures he was creating, and out of pity presented man with the heavenly fire. Another version is that Zeus had been tricked by Prometheus over his share of a sacrificial ox, and therefore denied mankind the use of fire. For this offense, whichever one it was, Zeus had him chained to a rock where during the daytime an eagle ate his liver, which renewed itself each night, only to be eaten again the next day. Throughout his ordeal, Prometheus was sustained by a secret known only to him: that Zeus would father a son who would first overthrow him and then someday liberate Prometheus. After thirteen generations the prophecy was fulfilled as Heracales, son of Zeus by Alcmere, set him free.
Because of this legend, a rare-group metallic element was name promethium. Scientists predicted the element at the beginning of the twentieth century, reported it in 1926, and definitely identified it in 1945, as a radioactive form of the element. The name promethium was adopted by the International Union of Chemistry in 1945.
The word promethean became an adjective in the English language meaning that which pertains to fire or is capable of producing fire. Anything life giving — daringly original or creative — is also said to be promethean. Although the early friction matches changed its name through the years, the matches were first called promethean. Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle (1839) wrote: «I carried with me some promethean matches, which I ignited by biting...».


Procrustes, in Greek legend, was a brigand, a highwayman, who lived near Attica and lured travelers into his roadside home by offering them a bed for the night. Procrustes amused himself by forcing these travelers to lie on his iron bed and be fitted to it. If they were too short, he stretched them on a rack until they fit; those who were too long, he cut down to size.
The adjective procrustean denotes the use of violence to gain uniformity or the arbitrary imposition of conformity. Trying to make an entirely new situation fit old standards may be a procrustean effort. Foreordained standards that require conformity may be called a procrustean bed.
Procrustes, who enjoyed seeing things fit, had a fitting end. Theseus, son of the king of Athens, using Procrustes’s own methods, placed Procrustes on the torture device, just as he had done to his victims so many times before. Whether he was too short or too long is unknown.


Albert Francis Charles Augustus Emmanuel, Duke of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha (1819-1861), was born near Coburg, Germany, and studied at Brussels and at Bonn. He married Queen Victoria, his first cousin, in 1840. He was much beloved by the queen, and their marriage was a happy and successful one. The prince consort was a highly cultured person who blended well with the queen’s tastes and personality. The Victoria and Albert Museum, located in the Kensington section of London, houses the major collection of decorative arts in Great Britain. It stands as a monument to an enduring love and a well-mated marriage. The cornerstone for the present building was laid by the Queen in 1899, long after Albert’s death.
The jewelers of Birmingham in 1849 presented to the prince consort a watch chain, which he wore from a pocket to a button in his waistcoat. The chain came to set a fashion and was known as the Albert chain.
The Prince Albert, a knee length double-breasted frockcoat, less close fitting than the usual frockcoat, was named for Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who popularized the garment in the late nineteenth century. The Prince of Wales was the consort’s eldest son, and became Edward VII, king of England, in 1901, upon the death of Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales had traveled widely, and a number of articles were named for him, including a pipe tobacco.


Several stories of the origin of pralines vie with one another. But all concern the chef of Marshal Cesar du Plessis-Praslin (1598-1675), who became the French minister of state in 1652 and who concluded a successful military career upon reaching the pinnacle of military rank — field marshal in command of the entire royal army.
One story has it that Praslin’s chef prepared the sugar-coated praline for King Louis XIV, a dinner guest of the marshal. Another, and one with more authoritative approval, is that the praline had its genesis in the marshal’s stomach problems. The marshal liked to nibble almonds, but they gave him heartburn. His chef suggested that if the almonds were browned in boiling water, they would be more easily digested. The result of the chef’s ingenuity was a happier marshal, with fewer heartburns, and a confection of sugar-coated almonds that has become quite popular under the name praline.
The American version, introduced in New Orleans, substitutes pecans for the almonds. The Creoles in Louisiana who were responsible for the preparation of these goodies chose the pecans because they were locally available. Nevertheless, they retained the name praline, thus immortalizing, eponymously, Cesar du Plessis-Praslin.
Although possibly an apocryphal story, the marshal is said to have died with a silver tray of pralines at his bedside.


Pompadour is a style of dressing the hair in which the hair is brushed straight up from the forehead and pulled back over a pad. Whence cometh this name? Anyone familiar with French history would associate this hair style with Madame de Pompadour.
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson (1721-1764), a woman from ordinary circumstances, became probably history’s most famous mistress or concubine. She married a nobleman, Charles Guillaume d’Etoiles, and soon set her cap, so to speak, for King Louis XV, whom she had met at a masked ball. The king quickly became completely enamored of her and invited her to become his mistress and to live at Versailles. She immediately divorced her husband and cheerfully accepted the offer.
This new mistress was given the title of Marquise de Pompadour and the king’s mattresse en titre, or official mistress. But she was better known as Madame de Pompadour. She exercised a profound influence over the king for two decades. In fact, she became politically indispensable.
When Pompadour fell out of favor with the king as a mistress (Madame du Barry, the daughter of a dressmaker, replaced her), she shrewdly- maintained her political importance. But Pompadour was not in good health. She was tubercular and anemic and had suffered several miscarriages. She died at age forty-three.
Though Pompadour guided the destiny of France for two decades and had a lasting influence on French culture, she now is remembered only as the king’s mistress and for the eponymous coiffure she introduced.


The poinsettia is a genus of tropical American herbs and woody plants with inconspicuous yellow leaves and tapering bright red flowers. Especially popular around Christmas, the plants were brought from Mexico to the United States by a South Carolinian. That man, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1799-1851), had a fiery personality and style of living that matched the flamboyancy of those yuletide flowers. Poinsett brought a flower from Mexico that was renamed the poinsettia in his honor. He was the first to introduce the wild plant to floriculture.
Poinsett was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and educated in Europe, but only somewhat. He matriculated in a medical school, then in a law school, dropped out of both and devoted himself to travel for seven years in Europe and and western Asia. President Madison sent him to South America to investigate the development of independence. But
Poinsett’s behavior was such that the British said, «he was the most suspicious character» representing the United States and «a scourge of the American continent, contaminating the whole population».
Poinsett served in Congress when Madison was president, and became America’s first minister to Mexico. Under president Martin Van Buren, he became the secretary of war. He had a pretty good record for a man who had been declared persona non grata in South America and had been lucky to escape with his hide unscathed.
In any event, this gorgeously colored Mexican species, the poinsettia, takes its name from Poinsett and has become the floral symbol of Christmas, brightening, for more than a century, many Christmas hearths.


Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) was born in Bristol, England. He started out as a brewery clerk, became a manager, and then became a coal dealer. Elected to Parliament (1868) from Derby, Plimsoll cast about for a cause that could inspire him and also make him famous. He hit on an idea that he was sure would satisfy both these goals. Without any nautical experience or maritime association, Plimsoll became publicly concerned with the plight of seamen who were known to sail on derelict ships. Plimsoll haunted the waterfront, questioning seamen, their wives, stevedores, and anyone affiliated with nautical activities. He learned that many of the ships were of poor quality, and were overloaded and undermanned purposely to make them unseaworthy. If a heavily insured ship were to sink, the unscrupulous ship owner would stand to make a handsome profit. Sailors called these overloaded ships «coffin ships».
Plimsoll pursued his cause with a religious zeal. He published Our Seamen (1873), which contained heartrending accounts of the risks sailors might face and scathingly attacked everyone connected with the business of sponsoring these hazardous sea vessels. His publication had a profound impression on the seafaring population and pricked the conscience of some members of Parliament.
When Disraeli caved in to vested interests and announced that a government bill to correct shipping faults would be dropped, Plimsoll lost his temper and shouted that his fellow House members were «villains». Plimsoll was made to apologize, but his sensational outburst is said to have generated so much interest in maritime problems in the Parliament that, in 1876, the Merchant Shipping Act, requiring better inspection, was passed. The act was followed by others, including one known as the Plimsoll line. That one required that a line (a circle and a horizontal line) be placed round a merchant vessel to designate its maximum load point in salt water. The line proved valuable and resulted in fewer ships being sunk and many lives saved.
Quite naturally, Plimsoll became a hero among seamen, and they elected him president of the Sailors’ and Hremen’s Union. His interest in improving mercantile shipping, especially cattle ships, continued until his death.


Platonic love, from the Latin armor Platonicus, is nonphysical attraction between a man and a woman, sometimes called platonic friendship. This notion of friendship is loosely derived from views stated in Plato’s Symposium, in which he tells of the pure love of Socrates for young men. In 1626 in England, platonic love, the love of friendship only, came to be applied only to a love between a mart and a woman, and the talk between them was called platonics.
Not much is known about the renowned philosopher. Plato (c. 428347 B.C.) at birth was given the name Aristocles. His name was changed to Plato by his gymnastic teacher, who admired the great width of his shoulders (in Greek, Plato means «wide»). At age twenty, Plato became a student of Socrates. After the death of Socrates, Plato founded the Academy in 387, the first university, which offered courses in philosophy, mathematics, logic, and government. One of Plato’s pupils was Aristotle.
Plato died while attending a wedding feast in Athens. Although his age was uncertain, he is believed to have been about eighty. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead characterized Western philosophy as «a series of footnotes to Plato».


Shorthand is an old system for quickly recording speeches. Marcus Tullius Tiro invented what has come to be known as the Tironian system. Tiro was a freedman and amanuensis of Cicero. The ampersand (&), a contraction of the Latin and, is still sometimes called the Tironian sign. In 1837, Isaac Pitman (1813-1897), after studying Samuel Taylor’s scheme for shorthand writing, introduced his shorthand system through his publication Stenographic Soundhand, which explained a system phonetically based on dots, dashes, strokes, and curves to signify various sounds. The system was not easy to master because it depended on the slope and position of strokes and on shadings, a light shade giving one phonetic sound and a dark one another. But the Pitman system was universally accepted, and the name Pitman became synonymous with
«shorthand». Isaac’s brother, Benn (1822-1910), immigrated to the United States and devoted his time to popularizing the Pitman system.
Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1898) was born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England, the son of an English textile manufacturer. He was employed as a Sunday School superintendent, but devoted much of his life to the study and promulgation of phonetics. His love for phonetics never left him. The epitaph he wrote for his wife’s grave read: «In memori ov MERI PITMAN, Weif ov Mr. Eizak Pitman, Fonetik Printer, ov this site. Deid 19 Agust 1857 edjed 64 Treper tu mit thei God' Amos 4, 12."».
Although there are a number of shorthand systems in the United States, the most popular one today, and the chief replacement of the Pitman system, is the Gregg system. Simpler than the Pitman system, it is based on naturally curved strokes of ordinary written script and does not require the shadings of the older system.
John Robert Gregg (1864-1948) was born in Ireland, but his book The Phonetic Handwriting was published in England. Gregg migrated to the United States and introduced his simpler system of writing in shorthand. The Gregg system quickly took over as the most popular in America. That's the long and the short of it.


A London watchmaker who took his name from Pinchbeck, Lincolnshire, invented an alloy of five parts copper and one of zinc that resembled gold. The inventor was Christopher Pinchbeck (1670-1732), whose shop was on Fleet Street. He was an ingenious toy maker, particularly of singing birds and clocks that showed the movements of the planets and stars. The alloy was a welcome invention because it enabled jewelers and others to sell a product that was not gold but looked like it. The products compared with something in gold were inexpensive, but they could be made into interesting designs.
Pinchbeck died shortly after his invention became available on the market. The practices of those selling products made with pinchbeck often were deceptive, and so pinchbeck became an eponym for false or sham. Anything spurious or counterfeit was labeled pinchbeck. The term is also used to describe anything of inferior quality.