A very nice married couple from Canada struck up a conversation in a restaurant where we were having dinner. At one point the husband said that, earlier in his life, he had played with some buddies in a rock band.
The name of the band, he said, was the Rock-Olas.
"Like the jukebox," I said.
"Of course," he said.
Rock-Ola jukeboxes were gorgeous; they were icons of the early days of rock and roll.
"Where do you think those jukeboxes got their name?" I asked him.
He assumed the same thing most people always assumed: "Rock-Ola" was a combination of "rock and roll" and "Victrola," the storied brand of early phonograph-record players.
"Nope," I said.
I had always thought the same thing. But then, years ago, I spoke with the founder of Rock-Ola.
His name was David C. Rockola. The whole thing was a total coincidence. Even before he started manufacturing jukeboxes, he had put the hyphen between the two parts of his name when he was selling coin-operated machines. He just wanted customers to be able to pronounce his name -- and the company's -- correctly.
The couple to whom I told the story laughed, and later it occurred to me that many products we take for granted -- products so famous that they and their names are synonymous -- once started out nameless. There was the thing -- the product -- and then there was a need to call it something.
Take Snickers, the candy bar. When you hear "Snickers," you immediately see the candy, almost taste it.
But how did it become Snickers?
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Well, the Mars family, who introduced the candy bar, had a favorite horse they owned. Snickers. So when they needed to call the candy bar something.
Cheerios -- the cereal? It was originally named Cheerioats, because of its main ingredient. But there was a problem -- a competitor was producing an oat cereal with a similar name. Thus: Cheerios. It hasn't done badly.
How about Q-tips? Everyone knows what they are, but what does the name mean?
A man named Leo Gerstenzang, in the 1920s, saw his wife applying cotton swabs to toothpicks. This gave him the idea to come up with a pre-made cotton swab for use with infants.
The product's original name -- intended to connote gentle care of happy newborns (this was in a different American era, with a different lexicon) -- was Baby Gays. But that didn't adequately describe the product, so it was changed to Q-tips. Q for quality; tips for the cotton swab at either end.
What about Conway Twitty, the late singer? (I know we're getting a little far afield here -- Twitty was a person, not a product -- but he was terrific, and his name begs the question.)
He was Harold Jenkins in the 1950s, trying to make it big in the recording industry, and finding that "Harold Jenkins" didn't exactly translate to thrills and excitement.
So the story went, he and his manager took a map of the United States and put their fingers on it. On Arkansas and Texas, to be precise. Conway, Arkansas. Twitty, Texas.
Soon his records were enormous hits in Rock-Ola jukeboxes from coast to coast.
Next up: Weejuns, the classic penny loafers made by the G. H. Bass shoe company.
You know those shoes on sight. But the name?