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Let's Look At The Language

November 19, 2011

The sometimes-cryptic language of company names

Cream cheese originated in 1872 as the result of William Lawrence's failure to duplicate the French cheese Neufchatel. By 1880, he knew his "accidental cheese" was good enough for distribution, so he packaged it in foil wrappers and called it Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

Obviously a major success story, but there's nothing obvious about the birthplace of cream cheese. Many Daily Star readers know that the Pennsylvania city had nothing to do with the iconic dairy product that bears its name, but how many people outside our area would know that Lawrence concocted his Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Orange County, New York, and that he manufactured it in Otsego County -- South Edmeston, to be exact? In fact, asking the question, "Where did Philadelphia Cream Cheese originate?" sounds a bit like asking, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

As the cream cheese story shows, the origins of many company names are not as obvious as they may seem. I assumed the Duane Reade drug store chain was named for its founder, but no. Its first warehouse was between Duane and Reade streets. Conversely, I never thought Taco Bell took its name from a person. Its founder? Glen Bell. I also believed that the name Arby's spells out the pronunciation of R.B., for "roast beef." Close, but it stands for the founding "Raffel Brothers."

Initials and other modifications of a founder's name are common in business names. The founder of Bic pens wisely shortened his name for the U.S. market, because our pronunciation of his French name (Bich) wasn't a boost to business. Some founder-inspired names are less amusing -- the footwear icon Adidas derives its name from German founder Adolf ("Adi") Dassler. He was a Nazi shoemaker who made boots for Hitler's armed forces.

Samsonite luggage is named not for its founder, but for the biblical strongman. That may be an obvious one, but what about Apache software? If you're thinking Southwest natives, don't. According to Apache, in its early days, the result of combining patch files was "a patchy" server.

Sometimes a company name is just sentiment. Steve Jobs loved apples, and the rest is history. The investment research house Morningstar links itself to the sentiment of Thoreau's Walden, which ends with: "The sun is but a morning star." (Ironically, this is the sort of commercial exploitation that would have sent Thoreau right back into the woods.)

Sometimes a company name is just bad spelling. The massive number "googol" was the intended name for the super-capacity search engine that was super-successfully misspelled as "Google."

The insurance giant CIGNA may not be guilty of poor spelling, but no one can credit them with a rational acronym. "CIGNA" is supposedly the combination of CG (Connecticut General) and INA (Insurance [Company] of North America). That's the most license with an acronym I've ever seen.

A perfect acronym, on the other hand, is Coleco (the maker of electronic games and Cabbage Patch Kids). But believe it or not, Coleco stands for "Connecticut Leather Company."

Occasionally, a company name is a true invention. To create a term that stands for nothing, refers to nothing, yet has all the qualities of a pleasing, legitimate name is, in any language, impressive. So hats off to two of the best invented company names of all time: Kodak and Haagen-Dazs.

The only thing cryptic about some company names is their foreign language. The relationship between the constellation Pleiades and the stars on my car would not have escaped me for so long had I known that the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster is "Subaru."

The creators of Legos, another beloved foreign brand, say the Lego name comes from the Danish leg godt ("play well"), which has been challenged by those who point out that in Latin, lego translates to "I put together." It takes a lot of nerve to challenge the Danes on that one, especially since the Lego company made wooden toys long before their little plastic bricks.

Oh, well. What matters is the Danes know the truth about Legos, and we know the truth about cream cheese.

Christine A. Lindberg, and Edmeston resident and senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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