Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How'd it get that name?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
May 20, 2012 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT