The Strange Early Names of 11 Common Products

Andrew Burton, Getty Images
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Branding is everything. It’s why we refer to most tissues as Kleenex even though we might be picking up a box of Puffs, and why we call a duplicate of something a Xerox even if it hasn’t come out of that company's copy machines.

Those two products may have gotten their name right on the first try, but not all companies are so lucky. Take a look at 11 popular brands that started out with far less effective labels.

1. KOOL-AID // FRUIT SMACK

A mother serves Kool-Aid to her daughter
iStock.com/stephanie phillips

In the 20th century, Edwin Perkins owned a successful family mail-order business. As with the Tupperware and Avon models, Perkins enlisted regional sales representatives to peddle his products, which ranged from home goods to food flavorings. One popular item was Fruit Smack, a highly concentrated juice that came in 4-ounce corked bottles and could be mixed with a pitcher of water. Owing to shipping hassles—the glass bottle would sometimes break or leak—Perkins came up with a powdered version. With the change from liquid to solid came a name change: Kool-Ade was introduced in six flavors (raspberry, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, and root beer) in 1928. The current spelling was introduced in 1934.

2. WATER BED // PLEASURE PIT

A man relaxes on a waterbed
WaterbedOutlet, YouTube

It’s easy to understand how a more luxurious bed was conceived at the height of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. San Francisco State University graduate student Charlie Hall created the water bed—a fluid-filled membrane that replaced a foam mattress—in a design class in 1968. Contrary to popular assumption, though, Hall wasn’t much of a hippie. He just wanted to make a more comfortable bed. The name he chose, however, was tawdry. Hall called it the "Pleasure Pit," but the subsequent knock-offs came to be known as "water beds." Even the more innocuous name was still paired with lurid advertising. One salesman told clients that the gyrating motion of the bed “creates the impression a third, warm body is participating.”

3. CHEERIOS // CHEERIOATS

A bowl of Cheerios sits on a table
iStock.com/RonOrmanJr

This breakfast table staple was introduced in 1941, after food science innovator Lester Borchardt developed a way to puff up oats into the familiar “O” shape. For the first four years, the cereal was called Cheerioats to emphasize its whole-grain origins, and manufacturer General Mills even shipped the toasted oats to servicemen using the slogan “He’s feeling his CheeriOats.” But Quaker Oats wasn’t having it. They believed they had the corner on “oats” in the processed-food market. Rather than engage in a lengthy legal struggle, General Mills shortened the name to Cheerios in 1945.

4. VASELINE // WONDER JELLY

A jar of Vaseline sits unopened
iStock.com/urbanbuzz

While visiting Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, chemist Robert Chesebrough became intrigued by the fact that the petroleum oil drillers there smeared the jelly-like residue of the drilling process over their burned or irritated skin. Sensing he had the next great home care product, he spent years developing a patented purification process to sell the petroleum goop commercially. In 1870, the product debuted under the name Wonder Jelly. Chesebrough travelled around New York demonstrating the product’s effectiveness by burning his skin with an open flame or acid and then soothing it with his concoction. While this undoubtedly made a name for Chesebrough, it may not have had the same effect on his creation. He changed the name to Vaseline (reportedly combining the German word for water, wasser, and the Greek word for oil, oleon), and registered it in 1872.

5. PAC-MAN // PUCK-MAN

A 'Pac-Man' video game screen is shown
iStock.com/ilbusca

At the height of coin-operated arcade machine mania in 1980, Japanese video game manufacturer Namco dropped a bombshell release. Their Pac-Man, which let players control a sentient yellow circle that gobbled up power pellets and ghosts, was a national phenomenon. But in Japan, it was known by another name: Creator Toru Iwatani dubbed the game Puckman (or Puck-Man). Accounts vary as to why he chose this name, but it may have had something to do with his protagonist's puck-shaped appearance, or a reference to the Japanese word paku, meaning "chomp." When Namco prepared the game for an American release, however, marketers worried that some teenagers might change the P in Puck-Man to an F. They wisely opted for Pac-Man instead.

6. Q-TIPS // BABY GAYS

Q-Tips sit in a pile
iStock.com/Photology1971

After seeing his wife create a makeshift cotton swab by wrapping cotton balls around toothpicks to use on their baby, Leo Gerstenzang decided to mass-produce sterilized swabs. He formed the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company in 1923 and named his leading product Baby Gays, presumably for the joy they would bring to children who weren’t being treated like pin cushions by toothpick-wielding mothers. In 1926, Gerstenzang altered the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays, and eventually just Q-Tips. The Q stands for quality.

7. BIG MAC // ARISTOCRAT

A Big Mac sits next to an order of McDonald's fries
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

The signature burger at McDonald’s was concocted by local franchisee Jim Delligatti, who arranged the two beef patties drenched in a secret sauce in Pittsburgh in 1967. While Delligatti developed a tasty burger, the early names for it—the Aristocrat and the Blue Ribbon Burger—proved unpopular among corporate brass. An advertising executive named Esther Rose came up with “Big Mac” on the way to a product meeting; a colleague rejected it, believing the menu’s McDouble meant they couldn’t use another “Mac” burger product, but was overruled. The Big Mac rolled out nationally in 1968. It’s remained a fixture of their menu ever since. (Rose, incidentally, received no royalties for naming the burger, but the company did give her a nice plaque.)

8. COTTON CANDY // FAIRY FLOSS

Three people hold up cotton candy in front of their faces
iStock.com/diatrezor

The staple of carnivals everywhere, sugar-saturated cotton candy was developed by the unlikeliest of creators—a dentist. William Morrison conspired with confectioner John C. Wharton to develop and patent an electronic machine that spun the fiber-textured candy in 1897. (Melted sugar is forced through tiny holes using centrifugal force, solidifying into narrow strands.) Morrison and Wharton shopped their confection at world fairs under the name “fairy floss.” It was another somewhat irresponsible dentist, Josef Lascaux, who gave it the name cotton candy in the 1920s (although it reportedly retains the "fairy" moniker in Australia).

9. EGGO WAFFLES // FROFFLES

Boxes of Eggo Waffles are seen in a grocery store
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

The Dorsa brothers—Frank, Anthony, and Sam—were an enterprising bunch. After coming up with a popular mayonnaise recipe in 1932—which they dubbed Eggo Mayonnaise after their egg-heavy ingredient list—the siblings turned their attention to waffle batter. When that became prohibitive to ship due to fear of spoilage, they created a dry mix, then decided to capitalize on the burgeoning frozen-food market by offering pre-cooked waffles they called Froffles (frozen waffles) beginning in 1953. The name didn’t stick, though: Consumers preferred the Eggo label, and so the brothers changed the name in 1955. In 1972, new Eggo owners Kellogg cemented the brand with the “Leggo my Eggo” ad campaign. “Unhand my Froffles” didn’t have the same ring to it.

10. FRISBEE // PLUTO PLATTER

A man throws a Frisbee at the camera
iStock.com/eyecrave

When the Wham-O novelty toy company introduced a flying plastic disc in the 1950s intended for tossing, it was dubbed the Pluto Platter in order to capitalize on the nation’s flying saucer hysteria. The name came from inventor Walter Frederick Morrison, who originally considered calling it the Whirlo-Way and the Flyin-Saucer. Within months, Wham-O decided to rename it the Frisbee, though there’s some debate over what exactly inspired the new title. One story has students of a New England college tossing pie tins around from the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Wham-O president Richard Knerr said the name came from a comic strip called "Mr. Frisbie."

Either way, Morrison—who reaped royalties from Frisbee sales—thought the new moniker was a terrible choice. “I thought it was insane,” he told The New York Times in 2007.

11. SCRABBLE // CRISS CROSS WORDS

Scrabble tiles are scattered across the board
iStock.com/Juanmonino

The ubiquitous word game was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts, who was out of work during the Great Depression in 1933 and used his copious free time to work on his letter tiles. Through the product’s lengthy developmental stage in the 1930s and 1940s, Butts referred to it as Lexiko, It, and Criss Cross Words. It wasn’t until Butts teamed up with entrepreneur James Brunot that the two came up with the name Scrabble, which means to collect or hold on to something. They trademarked the title in 1948. By the early 1950s, the game was so popular that Butts and Brunot couldn't meet the demand even though they were producing 6000 sets a week.

11 Memorable Facts About Cats the Musical

Mike Clarke/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/Getty Images

“It was better than Cats!” Decades after Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982, this tongue-in-cheek idiom remains a part of our lexicon (thanks to Saturday Night Live). Although the feline extravaganza divided the critics, it won over audiences of all ages and became an industry juggernaut—one that single-handedly generated more than $3 billion for New York City's economy—and that was before it made a return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday on March 22, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

1. The work that Cats the musical is based on was originally going to include dogs.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939, is a collection of feline-themed poems written by the great T. S. Eliot. A whimsical, lighthearted effort, the volume has been delighting cat fanciers for generations—and it could have become just as big of a hit with dog lovers, too. At first, Eliot envisioned the book as an assemblage of canine- and tabby-related poems. However, he came to believe that “dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” (Spoken like a true ailurophile.) According to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned them in the finished product.

For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber has described his attitude towards cats as “quite neutral.” Still, the composer felt that Eliot’s rhymes could form the basis of a daring, West End-worthy soundtrack. It seemed like an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to set that exciting verse to music,” he explained. “When I [had] written with lyricists in the past … the lyrics have been written to the music. So I was intrigued to see whether I could write a complete piece the other way ‘round.”

2. "Memory" was inspired by a poem that T.S. Eliot never finished.

In 1980, Webber approached T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, to ask for her blessing on the project. She not only said “yes,” but provided the songwriter with some helpful notes and letters that her husband had written about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—including a half-finished, eight-line poem called “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.” Feeling that it was too melancholy for children, Eliot decided to omit the piece from Practical Cats. But the dramatic power of the poem made it irresistible for Webber and Trevor Nunn, the show’s original director. By combining lines from “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat” with those of another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they laid the foundation for what became the powerful ballad “Memory.” A smash hit within a smash hit, this showstopper has been covered by such icons as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.

3. Dame Judi Dench left the cast of Cats when her Achilles tendon snapped.

One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’s original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, she was going through a scene with co-star Wayne Sleep (Mr. Mistoffelees) when disaster struck. “She went, ‘You kicked me!’” Sleep recalls in the above video. “And I said, ‘I didn’t, actually, are you alright?’” She wasn’t. Somehow, Dench had managed to tear her Achilles tendon. As a last-minute replacement, Elaine Paige of Evita fame was brought aboard. In an eerie coincidence, Paige had heard a recorded version of “Memory” on a local radio station less than 24 hours before she was asked to play Grizabella. Also, an actual black cat had crossed her path that day. Spooky.

4. To finance the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up mortgaging his house.

Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously won great acclaim as one of the creative minds behind Jesus Christ Superstar and other hit shows, Cats had a hard time finding investors. According to choreographer Gillian Lynne, “[it] was very, very difficult to finance because everyone said ‘A show about cats? You must be raving mad.’” In fact, the musical fell so far short of its fundraising goals that Webber ended up taking out a second mortgage on his home to help get Cats the musical off the ground.

5. When Cats the musical came to Broadway, its venue got a huge makeover.

Cats made its West End debut on May 11, 1981. Seventeen months later, a Broadway production of the musical launched what was to become an 18-year run at the Winter Garden Theatre. But before the show could open, some major adjustments had to be made to the venue. Cats came with an enormous, sprawling set which was far too large for the theatre’s available performing space. To make some more room, the stage had to be expanded. Consequently, several rows of orchestra seats were removed, along with the Winter Garden’s proscenium arch. And that was just the beginning. For Grizabella’s climactic ascent into the Heaviside Layer on a giant, levitating tire, the crew installed a hydraulic lift in the orchestra pit and carved a massive hole through the auditorium ceiling. Finally, the theater’s walls were painted black to set the proper mood. After Cats closed in 2000, the original look of the Winter Garden was painstakingly restored—at a cost of $8 million.

6. Cats the musical set longevity records on both sides of the Atlantic.

The original London production took its final bow on May 11, 2002, exactly 21 years after the show had opened—which, at the time, made Cats the longest-running musical in the West End’s history. (It would lose that title to Les Miserables in 2006.) Across the pond, the show was performed at the Winter Garden for the 6138th time on June 19, 1997, putting Cats ahead of A Chorus Line as the longest-running show on Broadway. To celebrate, a massive outdoor celebration was held between 50th and 51st streets, complete with a laser light show and an exclusive after-party for Cats alums.

7. One theatergoer sued the show for $6 million.

Like Hair, Cats involves a lot of performer-audience interaction. See it live, and you might just spot a leotard-clad actor licking himself near your seat before the curtain goes up. In some productions, the character Rum Tum Tugger even rushes out into the crowd and finds an unsuspecting patron to dance with. At a Broadway performance on January 30, 1996, Tugger was played by stage veteran David Hibbard. That night, he singled out one Evelyn Amato as his would-be dance partner. Mildly put, she did not appreciate his antics. Alleging that Hibbard had gyrated his pelvis in her face, Amato sued the musical and its creative team for $6 million.

8. Thanks to Cats the musical, T.S. Eliot received a posthumous Tony.

Because most of the songs in Cats are almost verbatim recitations of Eliot’s poems, he’s regarded as its primary lyricist—even though he died in 1965, long before the show was conceived. Still, Eliot’s contributions earned him a 1983 Tony for Best Book of a Musical. A visibly moved Valerie Eliot took the stage to accept this prize on her late spouse’s behalf. “Tonight’s honor would have given my husband particular pleasure because he loved the theatre,” she told the crowd. Eliot also shared the Best Original Score Tony with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

9. The original Broadway production used more than 3000 pounds of yak hair.

Major productions of Cats use meticulously crafted yak hair wigs, which currently cost around $2300 apiece and can take 40 hours or more to produce. Adding to the expense is the fact that costumers can’t just recycle an old wig after some performer gets recast. “Each wig is made specifically for the actor,” explains wigmaker Hannah McGregor in the above video. Since people tend to have differently shaped heads, precise measurements are taken of every cast member’s skull before he or she is fitted with a new head of hair. “[Their wigs] have to fit them perfectly,” McGregor adds, “because of the amount of jumping and skipping they do as cats.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, over its 18-year run, the first Broadway production used 3247 pounds of yak hair. (In comparison, the heaviest actual yaks only weigh around 2200 pounds.)

10. A recent revival included hip hop.

In December 2014, Cats returned to the West End with an all-new cast and music. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” a popular Act I song, was reimagined as a hip hop number. “I’ve come to the conclusion, having read [Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats] again, that maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap,” Webber told the press.

11. Another revival featured an internet-famous feline for one night only.

On September 30, Grumpy Cat made her Broadway debut in Cats, briefly taking the stage with the cast. Despite being named Honorary Jellicle Cat, she hated every minute of it.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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