Sunday 30 March 2014


Last autumn I looked at the origins of some of the better known brand names. Having had to shop for a relative over the last few months I have seen a number of names which I would never have noticed had I only been hunter-gathering for myself. Hence I decided to revisit the subject and look at another batch of well-known brand names and just what inspired them.

Agfa – photographic products such as Agfa film may be a thing of the past in the digital age, but having to produce my own photographs the subject remains relevant to me. This is an acronym - Akteingesellschaft fur Anilinfabrikation – which I am reliably informed translates to “Limited company for dye manufacture”.

Brylcreem – is quite easy to see as a combination of ‘brilliantine’ and ‘cream’. I do not recall a day when my father did not use this product, yet there must have been many for the product was not marketed until 1928, when my father was already 9 years old, was originally called ‘Elite’ and at first only available to barbers.

Colibri – as a former smoker I recognised the name of the cigarette lighter. The firm named Colibri was founded by Julius Lowenthal in 1927, he chose the name as the name sounds foreign and thus exotic (car manufacturers do the same). The name is also used for a hummingbird, one sacred to the Taino Indians of the Caribbean.

Dorothy Perkins – I was quite surprised to find there was no such woman, at least not one who gave her name to the clothing stores. The name was suggested by the wife of one of the co-founders after she saw the classic English cottage which was home to the first of the chain of shops. She thought the premises would ideally suit a rambling rose being grown around the outside and it was this rose which was called Dorothy Perkins.

Ex-Lax – developed by a New York scientist of Hungarian extraction, it was first marketed as Bo-Bo. The story goes than the scientist was reading a newspaper, which reported there had been an ex-lex in his native Hungary – this a Latin term literally translating to ‘outside the law’ and just a minor tweak away from the present name. Just why he thought this would make a good name for a laxative is far from clear.

Fanta – developed during the years of the Second World War, it implies ‘fantasy’ as it required such an imagination to create a desirable drink from the limited materials available.

Gaumont – many towns and cities had a Gaumont cinema, these taking the name of the inventor of the motion picture, one Leon Ernest Gaumont.

Hovis – the famous ‘brown bread’ was patented in 1887 by Staffordshire miller Richard Smith as Smith’s Patent Brown Bread. Three years later he opened a competition to find a better name for his loaf. It was won by one Herbert Grime, who suggested a contraction of the Latin ‘hominis vis’ or ‘the strength of man’.

Izal – said to be an anagram of Liza, a sister of Mr J H Worrall who first produced this disinfectant.

Jaguar – chosen at random by the founder, William Lyons, from a long list of speedy and/or powerful animals which he thought would be suitable for a car.

Kenwood – a name synonymous with electric food mixers and named after the found of the company, Ken Wood.

Lucozade – it is based on glucose, hence the first part, and suffixed by the typical fizzy drink syllable –ade.

Mars – nothing to do with the planet or the Roman god, this was named after its founder, Forrest Mars.

Nabisco – derived from the original name of the firm, the National Biscuit Company.

Odeon – from the Greek oideion or ‘theatre’.

PG Tips – the end is easily seen as it is the tips of the tea leaves which produce the flavour of the tea. Originally it was marketed as Pre-Gestee, suggesting it was a good drink before food and used as an aid to digestion. When shopkeepers and delivery men began shortening it to PG the company soon adopted the name.

Quink – a contracted form of ‘quick drying ink’

Ribena – from the Latin name for the blackcurrant Ribes nigrum, from which Ribena is made.

Schweppes – jeweller Jacob Schweppe came up with this man-made mineral water having already made his money as a jeweller.

Teflon – this non-stick miracle, or so it seemed when it was first marketed, is a more manageable version of the substance polytetrafluoroethylene.

Uhu – an adhesive developed in the around the Black Forest in Germany. The forest is the ideal habitat for the eagle owl or, as it is known in Germany, the uhu.

Velcro – an amalgamation of the French velours ‘velvet’ and croche ‘hooked’

Wimpy – named after the hamburger-loving character in the Popeye cartoons, his full name being J Wellington Wimpy.

Xylonite – a combination of the Green xulon ‘wood’ and the common suffix ‘ite’, an excellent reflection of a company producing cellulose nitrate.

Yale – named after the American locksmith Linus Yale.

Zubes – a throat lozenge which may have been named from the Russian zub meaning ‘tooth’.

Sunday 23 March 2014

The Who and Why

Introduced to music in the 1960s, I still search for albums by bands from that golden era of British music, I have always been intrigued by the names chosen by bands. Some are obvious, such as the Dave Clark Five, a five-piece outfit put together by Dave Clark, others have clearly taken some thought. My interest in etymology and music resulted in the following, although it is not restricted to the Sixties but simply those I found the most interesting.

A-HA – was a prospective title for a song written by one of this band hailing from Norway, but when Morten Harket saw it he liked it as the name for the band. A little research showed this expression means the same virtually the world over and made an excellent choice.

BEATLES – Buddy Holly’s band were the Crickets. Either John Lennon or Stuart Sutcliffe suggested Beetles as a tribute to Crickets, with the former suggesting a change in spelling to Beatles which also suggested ‘beat’. Initially they were the Silver Beatles (or Beetles), although how he came up with this has had several suggestions.

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL – two suggestions for the origins here, both agree that Clear Water was a favourite of John Fogerty’s and he was delighted when, having been discontinued, was revived by another brewery after a break of four years. Both also agree that Creedence was a friend of John’s but some say this was one Norvel Creedence, while others attribute it to Creedence Newball.

DOOBIE BROTHERS – came from the Sixties slang for a joint.

EAGLES – influenced by the Byrds and a much better name than their original Teen King and the Emergencies.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION – where the band met (or convened) for the house was called Fairport.

GOLDEN EARRING – took the name of a film, well almost. It was inspired by the film Golden Earrings, a 1947 release starring Ray Milland and Marlene Dietrich set on the eve of the Second World War.

HOLLIES – as with the Beatles inspired and influenced by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, although some sources suggest it was a Christmas decoration at the home of Graham Nash.

IGGY POPP and the STOOGES – apparently Iggy, from ‘Iguana’, had been his nickname since childhood while the surname was taken from local junkie Jim Popp. One of the band’s favourite pastimes was to watch the Three Stooges.

JETHRO TULL – named after an eighteenth century chap who invented the seed-drill.

KIRBYS – if an origin fails to be creative, let it be silly. This band were the Panthers until they appeared on Radio Luxembourg, where the presenter (who shall be nameless) introduced them as the Kirbys, when he should have said they were from Kirby.

LOVIN’ SPOONFUL – was inspired by a line from Coffee Blues: “Well, please ma’am, just a lovin’ spoon, just a lovin’ spoonful, I declare, I got to have my lovin’ spoonful”. It is said to be slang for sperm but I could find no evidence of its use in this context before the band achieved success.

MARCELS – named after a hairstyle, one worn at the time by band member Fred Johnson’s sister Priscilla. I had never heard of a marcel wave and, having researched the image, don’t think it would suit me.

NAZARETH – a line from the Band’s track entitled The Weight: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about half past dead”.

OASIS – named after the Oasis Leisure Centre in Swindon.

POGUES – owing to complaints received by the BBC the band amended their name from what was originally the Gaelic for ‘kiss my arse’ (genius!)

QUEEN – said to have been chosen as a regal name and easily remembered, Freddie Mercury recognised the gay connection but never confirmed or denied it was a factor.

RAMONES – upon joining every member of the band adopts the stage name Ramone. This began with Douglas Colvin calling himself Dee Dee Ramone, a tribute to an early alias of Paul McCartney who took the name of Paul Ramon or Ramone.

SMALL FACES – taken from the Who song “I’m the Face”, where ‘face’ was used by Mods to mean “one with style” and ‘small’ because of the stature of the band members.

THREE DOG NIGHT – suggested by a former girlfriend of band member Danny Hutton. June Fairchild had been reading a magazine article about the people indigenous to Australia often, mistakenly, referred to as Aborigines. Desert nights can be cold, feeling particularly so when contrasting with the heat of the day, so they dig a hole as a bed and cuddle up to a dingo for warmth. Colder nights would require two dogs and the coldest known as a Three Dog Night.

ULTRAVOX – is Latin for ‘the greatest amount of voice”

VILLAGE PEOPLE – all the members of the band came from Greenwich Village.

WAYNE FONTANA and the MINDBENDERS – Glyn Ellis took the name ‘Wayne’ to add to the surname of D J Fontana, the drummer during Elvis Presley’s early years. The band took their name from a horror film, The Mindbenders being released in 1962.

ZZ TOP – inspired by their hero, blues legend B B King and wanted to call themselves Z Z King (the US pronunciation being ‘zee zee’ not ‘zed zed’ as in the UK). This similarity made them change ‘King’ to ‘Top’ as both could be used as synonyms for ‘best’ or ‘ultimate’.

Finally to answer the question set in the title. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon were originally the Detours but with Johnny Devlin and the Detours also around at that time decided to opt for a change. Townshend favoured a joke announcement, throwing out suggestions such as “No One” or “The Group” but ended up with The Who. There are also suggestions this was first heard from Townshend’s grandmother, whose hearing problems and lack of knowledge of modern music saw her respond to a mention of a band with “The who?”

Sunday 16 March 2014

Accents and Dialects

An interesting question was put to me this week. The original reference was to the miners from Wales moving to the Midlands in order to find work in the coal fields of Staffordshire. As they would tend to congregate with others of their own culture, how many generations would it take for their Welsh accent to be replaced by the local Black Country tones?

Such is not really my area of expertise but I was reminded of two occasions when the voices did not match what was expected before the speakers opened their mouths. The first was at school when a couple of brothers joined our numbers having recently moved when the family needed to find work. Both brothers were of Indian parentage, each excellent scholars, and spoke with a very broad accent which made them difficult to understand – it was pure Glaswegian. The second instance came much later, when I visited an old friend and his family. They had moved to Leeds from Birmingham and while both parents were clearly Midlanders, their two sons sounded as if they had been raised by Amos Brearley from Emmerdale.

Another involved in the aforementioned conversation had had some experience of this. A young lady who had spent some time in Italy told how it was clearly our children who picked up the accents from their peers and not their parents.

This does show why successive generations speak virtually in a code and language all of their own. For example the baddie was obvious The Wizard of Oz when it was first seen on the big screen, but would today’s generation see the Wicked Witch of the West as the trendiest character in the story?

It did indicate how quickly accents and even use of words can change and shows how old written records, in my case particularly those of place names, can be influenced in the phonetic spelling by something which can never be a gradual change.

Sunday 9 March 2014


The butcher – I still use an independent outlet, none of this pre-packed supermarket stuff for me – asked why I always ask for cooked meats in grams but use pounds when ordering joints of meat, bacon, sausage, etc. It happened when we officially went metric, I knew what went in the oven or recipe in pounds and ounces (so I never looked at them) but cooked meats were always priced in grams and so ordered in grams. I suppose I could have ordered in slices but as there is no measurement as the ‘slice’ I refuse to speak of such things.

When it comes to measurement the metric system speaks for itself, it was the whole reason it was created in the first place. This is not true of older imperial measurements, created over centuries and changing depending on what is being measured – volumes of liquids and dry goods may use the same name but do not assume these would be of equal dimensions. I am (just about) old enough to recall those old exercise books at school with the tables on the back – so may ounces in a pound, inches to a foot, pecks to a bushel, and the rest. I soon started wondering where all these imperial names came from and, following a little research, came up with the following.

Linear measurement is still probably the best known. It will take some time for us to stop measuring our height in feet and inches, and even if we use metres for most other things we still use miles to measure distance in the car. (Never could understand the notion of measuring distance in hours, makes no sense unless everyone travelled everywhere at one regulation speed.)

Inch – is from the Latin uncial or one-twelfth of and for obvious reasons. It is first recorded in English in the early 7th century. Interestingly in most other languages the name for this imperial measurement is the same or similar to the word for the ‘thumb’.

Foot – first seen in Britain under the Romans, in the 1st century AD the foot was equal to 11.65 inches. After the Romans had departed the Saxons arrived and their foot was set at 13.2 inches. The difference was in the use, the Roman foot was used in construction while the Saxon foot was solely for the land. The modern foot was set at the end of the thirteenth century. When it comes to the etymology of the word ‘foot’ it is generally accepted this comes from that part of the body, although as the measurement would always be longer than the body part it may be an early loan word for the boot or shoe.

Yard – a word derived from the Saxon or Old English for a straight branch.

Chain – while seen as an ancient measurement it was unknown prior to 1620 when one Edmund Gunter produced a chain of 100 links measuring 66 feet in length. He called it Gunter’s Chain, it was used for land measurements, and soon became known as simply a ‘chain’. The 100th part of a chain, corresponding to one link in Gunter’s Chain, became the length known as the ‘link’ but this never seemd to be popular.

Furlong – equal to ten chains or 220 yards, the original ‘far long’ was the maximum distance which could be ploughed in a straight furrow but not given a specific length.

Mile – began as a Roman measurement but the Roman mile was significantly shorter than the modern 1,760 as it equated to ‘one thousand paces’ or 1,617 yards. This does not mean the Romans had extremely long legs, simply a Roman pace was two steps. It comes from the Latin word millia meaning ‘thousand’.

League – equal to three miles it is rather surprising to find it is neither officially recognized nor used anywhere in the world today. Its origin seems to have been the distance one person could travel on foot in one hour. Although some will argue it is a marine measurement, for it is the distance of three nautical miles and how far one person can see level can see to the horizon (assuming they are approximately six feet tall). The latter seems coincidental rather than the basis for the measurement. The word itself comes from Latin, although as it was originally the leuga gallica the measurement was already in use in Gaul when the Romans arrived.

Fathom - as we have mentioned nautical measurements, this seems the right time to touch on this measurement of depth equal to six feet. It comes from a word meaning ‘embracing arms’ or ‘pair of outstretched arms’ which were seen as roughly six feet.

Rod – was an actual straight rod as opposed to the links in the chain, there being four rods in a chain.

Perch – the same length as a rod but usually seen when measuring area. It comes as little surprise to find this is from the French perche meaning ‘rod’.

Rood – a measurement of area equal to one rod wide and one furlong in length where, to confuse matters further, it comes from an Old English word for ‘pole, rod’.

Acre – still used as a measure of land comes from a root meaning ‘open land’.

Pint – still the favourite measurement of volume in the United Kingdom, it arrived in Britain through the French pinte and Latin picta meaning ‘painted’, this the line showing where level of the measurement.

Quart – is two pints or a quarter of a gallon, which is where the name comes from.

Gallon – stories of this coming from the French for ‘bowl’ are, at best, half true as there were references to this measurement from an earlier time and likely both share a common root.

Ounce – shares an origin with ‘inch’ in meaning one-twelfth.

Pound – from the Latin libra pondo ‘a pound weight’ and the reason it is abbreviated to ‘lb’.

Stone – the simplest to see as a reference to actual stones being used to determine weight.

Hundredweight – another simple name for it is roughly one hundred pounds.

Ton – comes from tun, the largest size of barrel.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Lies, Darned Lies, and Dashed Statistics.

I heard a variation on an old joke, you know the one about someone being knocked down by a car every ninety seconds in the UK and he’s getting sick and tired of it? Doesn’t improve with age but it did get me thinking about longevity. Even assuming all illnesses had been eradicated and that everyone reached maturity but never aged a day thereafter, there would still be accidents and people would die. I started wondering, based purely on averages and statistics, just how long the ageless human should expect to live if he/she was immune to all disease?

In order to answer the question it will take some creative mathematics. Furthermore I limited myself to the United Kingdom for the figures as otherwise the numbers become meaningless. The statistics represent a rough snapshot of about now(ish).

So there are 64 million people alive in the UK today. In 2010 there were 17,200 deaths not related to disease or old age. This equates to a one in 3,720 chance of suffering a fatal accident each year and thus on average everyone will live to be 3,720 years old.

Yet as per the title – pinched from either Benjamin Disraeli’s autobiography or a quote from Mark Twain, take your pick – you can use statistics to prove or disprove anything, one simply has to load the question in such a way as to get the answer you want. For example I could prove any sample of the population were confused by the concept of gender. To do this I ask a simple question: “Are you male or female?” At least 90% (and probably over 98%) will say “male” or will answer “female”. Both are wrong for the correct answer is “Yes” (ie I am male or female). Agreed, pedantry personified but it proves the point you can prove anything with statistics.

So getting back to this average lifespan I now theoretically have of 3,720 years. This is, of course, an average and some unfortunates will never live long enough to vote, legally drink alcohol, or even breed. To balance this there will be those who live twice as long, voting over 7,000 times, drinking copious amounts of alcohol (without associated health problems, of course), and becoming celibate as soon as they see the downside to breeding for seven millennia.

Again, statistically speaking there will be others who live ten, twenty, a hundred, or a thousand times longer than the average. There will even be a handful or two who, statistically speaking, will theoretically outlive the universe (always assuming the universe has a finite existence but that is an entirely different problem). As the universe, by its very definition, is everything and anyone of thing in it is a part of that universe, nothing can survive when the universe ends. Thus statistically, the non-aging, ever-healthy human could live to be as little as a year old or, if luck is with them, they could see the end of the universe.

It did occur to me that to witness the momentous occasion that is the end of the universe would be quite something – certainly more exciting than the millennium celebrations (which I still maintain was a year early). And think of all the other landmark events which could be experienced. The final episodes of the Archers and Coronation Street. Ant and Dec’s thankfully short-lived solo careers. The first meeting with an alien race, always assuming there are other intelligent beings in the universe and we do meet them (if there isn’t the rest of existence is going to be a tad tedious). The invention and subsequent banning of time travel when we work out that, at least statistically, someone will outlive the universe an infinite number of times over by never quite reaching the end of it (would they ever be able to resist finding out what they’re missing?)

But between these and millions more momentous events there is nothing but boredom. Mind-numbing ennui experienced many times before. Thankfully such won’t prove a problem as statistics always lie – as shown by the sample poll.