On the house.

Dear Word Detective: I am an ex-pat from St. Louis, MO. I still try to check in on local happenings by reading the Post-Dispatch online. Today, on their Blog, someone said, “Are there still restaurants in town where the managers are boniface?” Boniface? I had never heard that term before. Sure enough, “boniface” means the keeper of an inn, hotel, nightclub, or eating establishment. Where in the world did this term come from? — Margherita Wohletz.

Hey, me too. We left New York City for rural Ohio more than ten years ago, but I still read the New York papers online (mostly the Daily News, since the New York Times is pretty clueless as to how most people in New York actually live). And sometimes when I’m doing the dishes late at night I like to tune in to WCBS News Radio in New York. (I suspect they can get the WCBS signal on Mars.) It makes me homesick to listen, at least until they get to the traffic report. New York is the only city I can imagine having traffic jams at 1:30 am, but they do, usually on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I do not miss the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

boniface09“Boniface,” which today is used as a generic name for an innkeeper or proprietor of a restaurant, tavern, etc., is an eponym, a term drawn from a proper name. English is full of eponyms. The humble “sandwich,” for instance, is so called because it is said to have been invented in 1762 by John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich. (Sandwich almost certainly did not, in fact, “invent” eating meat between slices of bread, but his status as a member of the aristocracy popularized the concoction.) Similarly, when we call someone a “maverick,” we’re invoking the name of Samuel Maverick, a 19th century Texas rancher famous for not branding his wandering cattle, which made his name an eponym for a nonconformist who doesn’t “stick with the herd.”

Maverick and Sandwich were both real people, but eponyms are also frequently formed from the names of characters in fiction, and often become more famous than their literary sources. Most people, for instance, know that a “Svengali” is an evil, manipulative figure who exerts a powerful hold over another person, but not many know that the term comes from a character in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel “Trilby.”

“Boniface” is a literary eponym whose source is even more obscure today than “Trilby.” It comes from “The Beaux’ Stratagem,” a comedic play written by the Irish dramatist George Farquhar and first produced in London in 1707. The play centers on two young men who set out to enrich themselves by misleading young heiresses, but one of the two actually falls in love with his target and hijinks, as they say, ensue. I haven’t read the play, but evidently an innkeeper (and his daughter) play a prominent role, and the innkeeper’s name is, you guessed it, “Boniface.” Apparently the jovial innkeeper Boniface (pronounced “BAHN-ih-fass”) made such an impression on audiences that the term became an eponym for the operator of an inn, tavern or similar establishment.

In asking whether there were still restaurants in St. Louis where “the managers are boniface,” I think what the writer was seeking was places where the manager is always around, greeting guests and acting as a real host, as opposed to the hands-off, “autopilot” atmosphere of chain restaurants. It’s definitely worth the trouble to seek out such places. Those chain restaurants always seem like nothing but enormous vending machines.

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