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How They Got Their Name

Have you ever wondered how some companies got their name? Several days ago a reader sent me a link to a video clip — an interesting, short report on where several product names came from. This got me to wondering how many products I use or know of whose names have interesting and perhaps forgotten origins. I found an exhaustive (exhausting?) list on Wikipedia and on several other sites. I'm sharing only the ones my readers might enjoy. I did research myself to verify and flesh out several. Some I knew, some I had forgotten, and others were quite fascinating to learn about.

A&P – from the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

A&W Root Beer – named for the family names of founders Roy Allen and Frank Wright

Adidas – from the name of the founder Adolf (Adi) Dassler

Adobe Systems – from the Adobe Creek that ran behind the house of co-founder John Warnock

Alcoa – Aluminum Company of America

Aldi – a combination of Albrecht (name of the founders) and discount

Amoco – American Oil Company – now part of BP

Apple – Steve Jobs had worked during the summer at an apple farm and believed apples to be the most perfect fruit. He and Steve Wozniak were trying to figure out a name for their new company, and they decided that if they couldn't think of one by the end of the day that was better, they would choose Apple. They couldn't, so on April 1, 1976, Apple Computer, Inc. was born.

Arby's – the initials of its founders, the Raffel Brothers, even though customers might wrongly conclude that the initials stand for roast beef"

ASICS – an acronym for anima sana in corpore sano, which, translated from Latin, means "Healthy soul in a healthy body"

AT&T – American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation officially changed its name to AT&T in the 1990s

BP – formerly British Petroleum

Carrefour – chain of supermarkets and hypermarkets which started with one store near a crossroads (carrefour in French) in Annecy, France

CiCi's Pizza – from the first letters of the last names of the founders of the franchise — Joe Croce and Mike Cole

Coca-Cola – derived from the coca leaves and kola nuts used as flavoring. Coca-Cola creator John S. Pemberton changed the K of kola to C to make the name look better

Cutco – Cooking Utensils Company

CVS – Consumer Value Stores

DHL – named after its founders' last names, Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom, and Robert Lynn

ESPN – Entertainment and Sports Programming Network

Esso – the pronunciation of the initials S. O. in Standard Oil of New Jersey

Facebook – The name of this extremely popular site derives from the colloquial name of "The Photo Address Book", a student directory at Phillips Exeter Academy. Exeter is a private boarding school attended by Mark Zuckerberg for several years and where he observed and took part in lots of social interaction. The Photo Address Book was given to the students with the intention of helping them get to know each other better. They lovingly referred to it as "The Facebook." Below is Mark Zuckerberg's picture in Exeter's "facebook" during his student days there.

FedEx – abbreviation of Federal Express Corporation, the company's original name

Five Guys – American restaurant chain founded by "five guys" – Jerry Murrell and his four sons. The "five guys" would later become the Murrell sons, after Jerry and his wife Janie had a fifth son two years after opening their first restaurant.

Garmin – named after its founders, Gary Burrell and Dr. Min Kao

Gatti's Pizza (also Gatti Town) – Gatti was the maiden name of Pat Eure, wife of company founder Jim Eure.

GEICO – from Government Employees Insurance Company

Google – an originally accidental misspelling of the word googol and settled upon because google.com was unregistered. Googol was proposed to reflect the company's mission to organize the immense amount of information available online. A googol is the large number 10100, that is, the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros.

Groupon – short for "group coupon"

Häagen-Dazs – name invented in 1961 by ice-cream makers Reuben and Rose Mattus of the Bronx "to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship". The name has no meaning.

Haribo (makers of gummi bears and other candies) – from the name of the founder and the German home town of the company: Hans Riegel, Bonn

Harpo Productions – production company founded by Oprah Winfrey. Harpo is Oprah backwards. The name Oprah itself is interesting. She was originally named "Orpah" after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth, first name was supposed to be Orpah, after Ruth's sister-in-law in the Bible. I found several explanations of its current form, but the prevailing one is that it was misspelled Oprah on her birth certificate by the family's midwife, and the name stuck. I'm not sure that the company would have been named Hapro though ... it doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

H&R Block – founded by two brothers, Henry and Richard Bloch (with "Bloch" changed to "Block" to avoid mispronunciation)

IKEA – a composite of the first letters in the Swedish founder Ingvar Kamprad's name, in addition to the first letters of the names of the property and the village in which he grew up — Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd

Johnson & Johnson – Originally a partnership between brothers James and Edward Johnson in 1885, the addition of brother Robert Johnson led to formal incorporation as Johnson & Johnson in 1887.

Kinko's – from the college nickname of founder, Paul Orfalea. He was called Kinko because he had curly red hair. The company was bought by FedEx in 2004.

Kmart – named for Sebastian S. Kresge, who opened the first Kmart in 1962 as a division of his S. S. Kresge Company. The company became Kmart Corporation in 1977. After purchasing Sears, Roebuck & Company in 2005, the merged company became Sears Holdings Corporation, with Kmart continuing as a discount store chain within the new structure.

Lego – combination of the Danish leg godt, which means to "play well". Lego also means "I put together" in Latin, but the Lego Group claims this is only a coincidence and the etymology of the word is entirely Danish.

Mars – named after Frank C. Mars and his wife, Ethel, who started making candy in 1911. Their son, Forrest E. Mars, joined with Bruce Murrie, the son of a Hershey executive, to form M&M Ltd (from Mars & Murrie). Forrest took over the family business after his father's death and merged the two companies in 1964. After retiring from Mars, Inc. in 1993, Forrest founded Ethel M. Chocolates, named after his mother.

McDonald's – from the name of the brothers Dick McDonald and Mac McDonald, who founded the first McDonald's restaurant in 1940

Microsoft – coined by Bill Gates to represent the company that was devoted to microcomputer software. Originally christened Micro-Soft, the name eventually lost the hyphen.

Nabisco – formerly The National Biscuit Company, changed in 1971 to Nabisco

Nike – named for the Greek goddess of victory

Owens-Corning – Corning Glass and Owens-Illinois joined forces for the production of glass fiber. The Pink Panther became Owens-Corning's corporate mascot in 1980, to promote the sales of PINK Fiberglas® insulation.

Pepsi – named from the digestive enzyme pepsin

Pixar – from pixel and the co-founder's name, Alvy Ray Smith

QVC – Quality, Value and Convenience

RCA – Radio Corporation of America

Reebok – alternate spelling of rhebok (Pelea capreolus), an African antelope

Saab – from Swedish Svenska Aeroplan aktiebolaget (Swedish Aeroplane Company)

Skype – the original concept for the name was Sky-Peer-to-Peer, which morphed into Skyper, then Skype

Sprint – from its parent company, Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Communications. At the time, pipelines and railroad tracks were the cheapest place to lay communications lines, as the right-of-way was already leased or owned.

Starbucks – named after Starbuck, a character in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Taco Bell – named after founder Glen Bell

TCBY – Originally, the company's name was "This Can't Be Yogurt", but a lawsuit from a competitor named "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt!" forced TCBY to create a new backronym for its initials: "The Country's Best Yogurt".

Tim Hortons – Canadian fast food doughnut, sandwich, and coffee shop named after founder and hockey player Tim Horton. In Canada Tim Hortons is nicknamed "Tim's" and "Timmy's."

Umbro – founded in 1924 by the Humphrey Brothers, Harold and Wallace

Verizon – a combination of veritas (Latin for truth) and horizon

Volkswagen – from the German for "people's car." Ferdinand Porsche wanted to produce a car that was affordable for the masses.

Williams-Sonoma – founded by Chuck Williams in Sonoma, California

Xerox – named from xerography, a word derived from the Greek xeros (dry) and graphos (writing)

Yahoo! – The word Yahoo was invented by Jonathan Swift and used in his book Gulliver's Travels. It represents a person who is repulsive in appearance and barely human. Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang jokingly considered themselves yahoos.


I hope you enjoyed learning about or being reminded of the history behind some well-known company names. If you know of an interesting one, please add it to the comments. Reading about Owens-Corning reminded me of a ringtone I had on my old cell phone, and I made myself a new one — my Pink Panther Ringtone — and sent it to my phone.


"To sleep when terror all around demands we be awake marks our silent worship of Him. Just ask Jesus in the boat." — Brad Baugham

=^..^= =^..^=

The Occupy Wall Street protest has inspired unemployed computer geeks to unite and start a new protest. They are calling it Occupy Starbucks.

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7 Comments on “How They Got Their Name”

  1. #1 Nancy McGuire
    on Feb 1st, 2012 at 7:01 am

    How about 3M – Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing – Post-it notes, Scotch tape, Library systems, etc.

  2. #2 David
    on Feb 1st, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Google’s story just goes to show that when selecting a company name, you should do your homework. All they would have had to do is google “google” and they would have gotten “did you mean googol?”

  3. #3 Andrew Fry
    on Feb 1st, 2012 at 9:16 am

    And I always thought that Häagen-Dazs was Swedish for Heart Disease… 😛

  4. #4 Ann M
    on Feb 1st, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    I expected to see Wendy’s on the list. The fast food chain was named after the founder’s daughter.

    What I would like to know about M&Ms is how they get the Ms on the candies.

    Another interesting area to explore is town names and their origins. I’ve been collecting postmarks since 1989. Mail processing centers make it harder to find postmarks for small towns, but it’s still a fascinating hobby.

  5. #5 ray
    on Feb 2nd, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    IBM – we all know the letters, but they started from a time clock company. The International Time Recording Company (ITR) of Endicott,NY. These master / slave clocks were in schools and factories. They became IBM in 1919. Somebody I know has the master clock from the school he went to as a child, and it works – after he put some “time” into reviving it…

  6. #6 Vikki
    on Feb 7th, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Motorola started when the company began manufacturing car radios in 1930; the name is a combination of “motor” and “Victrola.”

  7. #7 Dan
    on Feb 11th, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Wow, that sure warms the heart of this trivia buff.