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 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
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT