My friend Suzanne Mantell is a rare-book dealer, and every so often I’m the beneficiary of one of her finds. The latest is a real gem hiding behind a pedestrian title: Dictionary of Trade Name Origins, by the late British onomastician (scholar of names) and toponymist (place-name expert) Adrian Room. The book, now out of print, was originally published in the UK in 1982; my copy is the revised 1983 edition.
Look at those gorgeous logos!
I’d never heard of Adrian Room(1933–2011), but I certainly should have. He turns out to have been astonishingly prolific: his many published books include Placenames of the World, The Street Names of England, The Fascinating Origins of Everyday Words, and Cassell’s Dictionary of First Names. He also edited a later edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable than the one I own.
To compile the Dictionary of Trade Name Origins, Room did a lot of dogged and, to hear him tell it, frustrating research. “[A]n unusually high proportion of written enquiries, even repeated ones, failed to reach their addressee … [or] many companies either could not or would not supply the information I asked for.” Nevertheless, the results are admirably comprehensive, if (understandably) biased toward British and Continental names. The excellent introduction gives a conceptual framework for brand names (“an important function … is to suggest as well as to indicate”) and lays out “the chief criteria for a good, successful name”: instantly comprehensible visually, easily pronounceable in all major languages, lacking “ludicrous or undesirable” meanings in foreign languages, and so on—all still relevant today. An appendix covers the role of specific letters and suffixes in name creation, a topic of special interest to me. (See my many posts on -ly names, a subject I’ll be covering in a presentation with Christopher Johnson at the American Name Society meeting in Portland in January.)
The bulk of the book is an alphabetical dictionary of brand-name origins, from Abbey National (created by the merger of the Abbey Road and National building societies) to Zubes (a brand of throat lozenges, whose origin “can only be guessed at,” although Room wonders whether zoob, the Russian word for tooth, played a role).
In between are some edifying and amusing stories. Here are some of my favorites:
- Nylon, the fabric name, has never been a trademark and has no meaning. “The letters of the name are stated to have no significance, etymologically or otherwise, yet there must even so be a link with rayon, which predated it.” The name was coined in 1938 by the Du Pont company.
- Virgin – in 1983 not yet a global conglomerate but merely a record company – was almost named Slipped Disc. (That name was “wisely rejected,” Room editorializes.)
- Scotch, the adhesive-tape brand sold by 3M, has no connection to Scotland or Scottish people (or terriers, for that matter). Rather, the name mostly likely came from the derogatory usage of “Scotch” to mean “frugal.” As Room tells the story, in the 1920s 3M developed a masking tape for use by car manufacturers who were painting two-tone cars. To keep costs down, the tape was only partially adhesive, and it tended to fall off. “At one garage, when the 3M salesman called, he was told to ‘take this Scotch tape back to those bosses of yours and tell them to put adhesive all over it—not just on the edges’.” 3M complied, but the “Scotch tape” name stuck, so to speak, launching “a trade name so well known that it has almost come to be generic.”
- Sobranie, the British tobacco brand, means “parliament” in Bulgarian. The association of tobacco with “exotic” cultures is a venerable one (see also Camel cigarettes).
- Names ending in -ola were in vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pianola, Victrola, and Farola are the ones Room cites; you could add Crayola, Moviola, and Shinola to the list. According to Room, the suffix conferred a “quasi-Italian” flavor to the brands.
- Audi, the car brand, is the Latin translation of the surname of the company’s German founder, Dr. August Horch. Both words mean “hear!” “This, although certainly a classical name, is more punning than prestigious,” writes Room.
Speaking of car names, here’s the entry about the Russian Lada, made by the Volga Automotive Works.
The Russian car is manufactured in Tolyatti (formerly Stavropol) on the river Volga. The river is reflected in the logo of the vehicle, which depicts a boat. The name, however, does not derive from the Russian poetic word ladya, “boat,” but from a folk word meaning “beloved” or “dear one.” In the USSR the car’s native name is Zhiguli, derived from the hills so called bordering the Volga not far from the city of manufacture. The car is known as Lada abroad since it is a simpler name in most languages and also since in some languages “Zhiguli” has undesirable connotations. In English and French, for example, it resembles “gigolo,” and in Arabic can suggest similar sounding words with meanings such as “fake” and “ignoramus.” In Scandinavian countries, moreover, the sound “zh” (as in English “pleasure”) does not exist. The name is also the standard Russian diminutive of Vladimir, which doubtless helps the car’s popular image.
Furcifer: A yoke-bearer; a fork-user; a rascal or scoundrel. From Latin furca, a fork.
Furcifer is archaic enough to be ignored by the online OED, which gives definitions only for some of its relatives (furcate: to divide into branches; furciferous: descriptive of certain butterflies that bear a forked process). Furcifer’s heyday was the early 17th century, when English travelers to the Continent noticed that the Italians used a curious pronged implement at table. One of those travelers, Thomas Coryat (or Coryate), visited Italy around 1608, when forks were virtually nonexistent in England. He wrote about this odd custom at some length in a book published in 1611.*
Bee Wilson tells Coryate’s story in Consider the Fork (2012), her informative and amusing “history of how we cook and eat”:
The typical Italian, noted Coryate, “cannot endure to have his dish touched with the fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not clean alike.” Although it seemed strange to him at first, Coryate acquired the habit himself and continued to use a fork for meat on his return to England. His friends—who included the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Dunne—in their “merry humour” teased him for this curious Italian habit, calling him “furcifer” (which meant “fork-holder,” but also “rascal”). Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude.
In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn’t use forks. “We need no forks to make hay with our mouths, to throw our meat into them” noted the poet Nicholas Breton in 1618.
Breton was on the wrong side of English history. “By 1700,” Wilson writes, “ a hundred years after Coryate’s trip to Italy, forks were accepted throughout Europe. Even Puritans used them. … Not wanting to dirty your fingers with food, or to dirty food with your fingers, had become the polite thing to do.”
Furcifer literally meant, in Latin, a slave who for punishment of some fault was made to carry a fork or gallows upon his neck through the city with his hands tied. Hence it came to signify generally a rogue or villain.
* The book’s full and splendid title is Coryat’s Crudities, Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months’ Travels in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhaetia (commonly called the Grison’s Country), Helvetia (alias Switzerland), Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands.
In the column, I expand on a Word of the Week entry from earlier this year, tracking the word’s long and interesting history (Chaucer! Shakespeare! Eighteenth-century slang!), reporting on “apothecary” sightings far and wide (from medical marijuana dispensaries to a gastropub), and speculating on the reasons for the word’s new popularity (steampunk, perchance?).
Apothecary is fun to say, but, as I note in the column, it’s no laughing matter legally:
Here in California (and maybe elsewhere), the use of “apothecary” is legally restricted to licensed pharmacies. The state board of pharmacy has, on at least a couple of occasions, wielded that law—enacted in 1905—against non-druggist apothecaries. In 2008, the board warned Apothecary, the San Francisco children’s-clothing store, to either change its name or close its doors. “Imagine ending up in legal hot water for not selling drugs,” a local newspaper wryly commented. The store owner chose to go out of business rather than rebrand.
The skincare brand Vichywas new to me when I spotted it at Walgreen’s last weekend.
Vichy display at Walgreen’s.The headline strikes me as not quite idiomatic: “transforms” generally doesn’t take “to.”
But Vichy is not a new brand: it was born in 1931, when a Parisian cosmetics manufacturer, George Guérin, was treated by Dr. Prosper Haller, at the spa in Vichy, France. The two men then created a line of skincare products that used water from the famous Vichy spring. In 1955, the company was bought by L’Oréal, which still owns the brand and which in 2014 is the world’s largest cosmetics company. (L’Oréal brands include Lancôme, Maybelline, Kiehl’s, Garnier, and Clarisonic.)
Here’s where we take a detour into 20th-century European history.
For students of World War II, or for anyone who’s watched Casablanca or Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, “Vichy” is not a neutral place name.* Beginning with the French surrender in June 1940, Vichy was the administrative center of German-occupied France and became shorthand for the pro-Nazi French regime. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “While officially neutral in the war, Vichy actively collaborated with the Nazis, including, to some degree, with their racial policies.”
Bygones, you say? Not so fast.
The founder of L’Oréal, Eugène Schueller (1881-1957), provided financial support for a violent French fascist group, La Cagoule (“the hood”). After the war, one member of the group, Jacques Correze, became chairman of L’Oréal’s U.S. marketing arm. Another member of the group, André Bettencourt, married Schueller’s daughter, Liliane. (Their daughter married a Jew, and a son from that marriage, Jean-Victor Meyers, now sits on L’Oréal’s board.) Nor did L’Oréal make public amends after the war: In Bitter Scent: The Case of L’Oréal, Nazis, and the Arab Boycott (1996), the Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar tells the story of how company director Jean Frydman**, a Jew and a hero of the French Resistance, was forced off L’Oréal’s board in 1989 to satisfy demands by the Arab League.
And, of course, L’Oréal keeps the Vichy name alive on its high-priced (for a drugstore brand) skincare products.
One has to assume that L’Oréal thinks the upside of the name (brand equity, pleasant sonic qualities) outweighs the downside (unsavory history, the effort and expense of a name change).*** As for me, I’m with Captain Renault.
Vichy? Absolument non!
* Also see L'Œil de Vichy (“The Eye of Vichy”), Claude Chabrol’s 1993 documentary made up of pro-Nazi propaganda produced by the Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944. You can watch the film in its entirety on YouTube.
** Not related to your author, as far as I know.
*** May a more appropriate tagline than “Your Ideal Skin” would help. How about “Your Beauty Collaborator”? Or “Surrender to Beautiful Skin”? Or even—cue the Marseillaise and the fog-shrouded black-and-white airport scene!—“This Could Be the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.”
In April, Microsoft announced the launch of Cortana, its new digital personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1.
Like the iPhone’s Siri, Cortana takes feminine pronouns. Some examples (cute or smarmy, depending on your perspective) from the Windows Phone website:
“Before you can get all the goodies Cortana has to offer, you’ll need to make sure she’s on. If you like, you can help her get to know you a little better, too.”
“If you turn Cortana on, for her to work for you, Microsoft collects and uses your location, contacts, voice input, info from email and text messages, browser history, search history, calendar details, and other info.”
“She’ll ask if you mind answering a few questions—this will help her understand what’s important to you and what information she should bring to your attention.”
“Cortana” will ring a bell for anyone familiar with Xbox games—it’s the name of a character, voiced by actress Jen Taylor, introduced in Halo: Combat Evolved, the first-person-shooter game published in 2001 by Microsoft Game Studios. In that game and its many sequels, Cortana is an artificial-intelligence construct that resides as a neural implant in the battle armor of the protagonist, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117.
Cortana as she appears in Halo 4. Source: Wikipedia.
Since “Cortana” was already part of the extended Microsoft brand universe, it was quickly adopted as the codename for the digital personal assistant, wrote Tom Warren in article published in April in the online tech-culture publication The Verge. “We didn’t intend for it to be the actual product name from the beginning,” Windows Phone product manager Marcus Ash told Warren. And it very nearly wasn’t:
The fact Cortana exists simply as Cortana, and not some marketing buzz like “Microsoft Personal Digital Assistant Home Premium” is surprising given Microsoft’s history of naming products. Up until a few weeks ago, it was hit and miss whether Cortana would be the final name. It could have been Naomi, Alyx, or a number of other suggestions, but leaks and a petition to use the Cortana name helped sway Microsoft’s decision.
The Halo connection has been deliberately exploited: the voice actor from the game, Jen Taylor, also voices the digital assistant. The strategy “meshes well with Microsoft’s main goal for the product: recreate a real personal assistant without being too creepy,” Warren wrote.
But the story of the Cortana name goes beyond Halo.
A lower-case cortana—sometimes spelled curtana—is a type of sword with a blunted or broken end, also known as a “sword of mercy.” The word entered English in the 15th century, adapted from cortain, the name of the sword carried by Roland in the early medieval French epic poem La Chanson de Roland; another character in the Roland poem, Ogier the Dane, carries a similar sword named Curtana. Cortana, curtana, and cortain are all related to Latin curtus (“short”). According to “The Modern Mythos,” an essay by Jill MacKay in Halo Effect: An Unauthorized Look at the Most Successful Video Game of All Time, the game’s allusion to these medieval sources is deliberate. (The name of another Halo AI character, Marathon 2’s Durandal, is a slight variation of Durendal, another of Roland’s legendary swords.)
Curtanas are still seen in the modern era, if only symbolically: in the British coronation ceremony, the monarch carries a curtana.
A 1935 revenue stamp (UK) depicting the ‘'curtana or sword of mercy” carried by King George VI during his coronation. Via I.B. RedGuy.
The name was taken from a character of the science fiction franchise "Halo", and alludes to the convoluted markings on the shell surface of the holotype of Cortana carvalhoi. Grammatical gender: feminine.
Hobby Lobby. Founded in 1970 in Oklahoma City, where it still has its headquarters, the craft-supply chain made headlines earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., that the company did not have to pay for insurance coverage for female contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Both hobby and lobby have long histories in the English language: In the late 13th century, a hobyn was a small horse or pony (a sense maintained in “hobby-horse”); by the late 1600s the word had come to mean “favorite pastime or avocation.” Lobby was adopted in the 1530s from medieval Latin, where laubia meant “a covered walk in a monastery.” By the end of the 16th century it referred to “a large entrance hall in a public building”; the political sense—“a group seeking to influence legislation”—arose in the 1790s in the new United States of America.
Other names on my list include Apple, Gap, Kindle, and Inkling.
Read the rest of the column, and let me know in a comment of other old English words that have been turned into successful contemporary brands.
“The tale of ‘scofflaw,’ born in Boston at a time when Prohibitionists were staging mock funerals of ‘John Barleycorn’ and fleets of Coast Guard rum-chasers patrolled Boston Harbor, shows that sometimes real words can actually be invented on demand. They just don’t always behave exactly the way their engineers hope they will.” (Boston Globe, via @ammonshea.) I wrote about “scofflaw” in a 2011 blog post. More on the language of Prohibition in this 2010 post.
[T]he project leader’s initial idea was straightforward: the Anti-Qassam, referring to the type of missiles most commonly fired by Hamas. When that was rejected as “problematic,” he and his wife came up with Golden Dome, an image that brings to mind the palaces of Kubla Khan or perhaps (closer to home) the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. That name was rejected as being too ostentatious, so under the pressure of time, gold was reduced to a lesser metal, and Iron Dome was born.
Belittle: To make small; to disparage; to scorn as worthless.
From our vantage point in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to fathom that belittle was once reviled as vulgar and—as late as 1926, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage—“an undesirable alien.” Such, however, is the well-documented case, as Ammon Shea enlightens us in his eminently readable new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (Perigee).* Belittle—like ain’t, enormity, split infinitives, and sentence-ending prepositions—is one of those language “mistakes” that pedants over the years have pointed to as proof that English is on its last legs.
In the case of belittle, the bewailing began more than two centuries ago. In a chapter titled “Words That Are Not Words,” Shea writes:
Belittle may look like a fine old English word, but it has the whiff of cheap backwoods neologism to it. It was coined in the early 1780s by Thomas Jefferson, shortly after the American Revolution, a time when there was a marked tendency on the part of some residents of the United Kingdom to cast aspersions at our country. Jefferson used the word (in the sense “to make small”) in Notes on the State of Virginia, in response to what he thought were incorrect notions of American wildlife made by Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon: “So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side the Atlantic.”
On the other side of the pond, the response was part sputter, part sneer. Shea cites a passage from a 1787 issue of the London Review:
Belittle!—What an expression!—It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perhaps perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is, to guess at its meaning.—For shame, Mr. Jefferson! … O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!
Makes you think twice before clutching your pearls over embiggen.
Other “words that are not words” investigated by Shea include balding (on grounds that there has never been a verb to bald, except there was, in the seventeenth century); stupider (on which Shea casts a linguistically objective eye); and, of course, our old friend irregardless. In his closing chapter, “221 Words That Were Once Frowned Upon,” Shea rounds up some not-so-usual subjects and the arguments once made against them: accessorize (“a bastard offshoot of the noun accessory”), aren’t I (“an ungrammatical colloquialism”), brainy (“singularly disagreeable”), debut (“a good noun, a lousy verb”), dress (“properly called a gown by everybody”), zoom (“an aviation term, concerns only upward mobility”), and dozens more. Shea also devotes three pages to contact (verb), about which I myself have written a fair amount.
Lately I’ve been paring down my book collection, but I’ve made an exception for Bad English. If you enjoy language (and since you’re reading this I suspect you do), I encourage you to do so as well.