Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How'd it get that name?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun May 20, 2012
Cheerios started life under a different name, but adapted and hasn't done half bad, says Bob Greene.
Cheerios started life under a different name, but adapted and hasn't done half bad, says Bob Greene.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene learned the story behind Rock-ola jukeboxes' name; got curious about others
  • He found Snickers candy was named after a favorite horse of the Mars family
  • He learned how Conway Twitty picked a new name because the real one wasn't as exciting
  • Greene: First there are products, then they need names; and behind them some good stories

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" during the 5 p.m. ET hour Sundays.

(CNN) -- 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?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion.

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?

It refers to a similar kind of shoe that was worn by Norwegian farmers. Norwegians: Weejuns, for short.

You still along for the ride? Let's pull over to the Holiday Inn. One of the most recognizable brands on the planet.

When Kemmons Wilson first came up with the idea for standardized, affordable highway motels, he didn't have a name for it. His architect, Eddie Bluestein, as an in-joke, wrote, across the bottom of his diagrams, "Holiday Inn," after the Bing Crosby movie about a country lodge. Some joke. Wilson liked the sound, which turned out to be a spectacular business decision.

Haagen-Dazs? A made-up combination of make-believe words to make a brand of ice cream sound Scandinavian and inviting. The words mean nothing at all. Except huge profits.

Popsicles, on the other hand, started out as Epsicles, named for their inventor, Frank Epperson. When he applied for a patent, the product was officially titled the Epsicle ice pop. His children, though, called this confection dreamed up by their dad -- their pop -- a Popsicle. Pop's sicle.

Taco Bell? In California after World War II, a fellow named Glen Bell decided to sell hamburgers from a stand. He called his store Bell's Burgers.

He had some competitors nearby: a couple of brothers with their own stand. Last name McDonald. The brothers had a splendid hamburger product.

Bell arrived at the conclusion that, when it came to burgers, he probably could not outcook and outsell McDonald's. So he chose another food specialty: tacos. He tried a few names before settling on a variation of Bell's Burgers, altered to connote Mexican cuisine: Taco Bell.

Space is growing short here, and there's probably an outside chance that somewhere in the world today there is more important news than this. Quickly:

Nehi soda pop.

The founder wanted customers to understand that his soda pop came in tall bottles, offering good value for the money. Knee-high bottles, to be hyperbolic. In marketing, hyperbolic is good. Thus: Nehi.

May we slip just one more in?

Dairy Queen.

Its founder, John F. McCullough, liked to proudly proclaim to all who would listen that the cow was "the queen of the dairy business."

As a parting note, let's give the last word to David Rockola himself.

He died in 1993; when I spoke with him, six years earlier, he was 90. I told him that it must be really cool to be able to have a jukebox in his home -- especially one with his name on it.

No, he said. No jukebox in the Rockola home:

"I had speakers installed in the ceilings of every room, and I had the wiring put in. But at the last minute, Mrs. Rockola said no. She said, 'You get enough of jukeboxes at the factory. We don't need one here.' "

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT