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The strange origins of your favorite companies’ names

From Apple to Starbucks, company names have some surprising (and sometimes problematic) histories behind them.

The strange origins of your favorite companies’ names
[Photo: chris-mueller/iStock]

Pepsi. Coke.

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BMW. Buick.

Rolex. Swatch.

All the above pairs sell, at their most basic, the same type of product, yet some people choose one company’s product over the other simply based on name recognition or the status it confers. It’s for that reason that so many startups put so much effort into choosing the perfect name (and suffer when they get it wrong). But while many of today’s companies’ names were chosen so their customers could easily identify what they sell, or showcase the spirit or mantra of the company–or were simply picked because the web URL was still available, some of the biggest companies have a bit more interesting–and even contentious–histories behind their names. Here are a few.

[Photo: Rahul Chakraborty/Unsplash]

Amazon

Amazon is one of the biggest, most influential and profitable companies on the planet today–a massive feat considering it’s less than 25 years old. It started off just selling books–but now sells virtually everything under the sun. But if it started as a bookseller, where did the company’s name come from?

The common story is the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos picked the name Amazon because it started with the letter “A” and back in 1994, search engines primarily returned search results in alphabetical order–meaning Amazon would show up near the top of results. Bezos has also stated that he came up with the Amazon name because the Amazon River is the largest river in the world and he dreamed of making his company the biggest bookstore in the world.

But that’s only half the story. The company actually had two prior names before Amazon was settled on. The first was Cadabra, Inc.–as in “abracadabra” online shopping is so new and magical! However, Bezos ditched this name after his lawyer kept hearing it as “cadaver”–as in a dead body.

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Bezos next settled on naming his store “Relentless” and even registered the domain name Relentless.com, which still redirects to Amazon.com to this day. However, friends told Bezos this made his company sound sinister and threatening.

Considering that Bezos is now the richest person in the world (worth $150 billion), dropping the morbid and sinister names in favor of the smiling Amazon seems to have worked out pretty well.

[Photo:
Xavier Wendling
/Unsplash]

Apple

Today the name “Apple” is synonymous with “computers,” but back in 1976 when the company was founded, naming a computer company after a fruit was just plain weird. After all, back then computer companies had primarily technological-sounding names. Think Microsoft or IBM (International Business Machines). So where did the name Apple come from? Here’s the story according to Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak, writing in his 2006 book iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon:

“It was a couple of weeks later when we came up with a name for the partnership. I remember I was driving Steve Jobs back from the airport along Highway 85. Steve was coming back from a visit to Oregon to a place he called an ‘apple orchard.’ It was actually some kind of commune. Steve suggested a name–Apple Computer. The first comment out of my mouth was, “What about Apple Records?” This was (and still is) the Beatles-owned record label. We both tried to come up with technical-sounding names that were better, but we couldn’t think of any good ones. Apple was so much better, better than any other name we could think of.”

It was a story Steve Jobs confirmed to Walter Isaacson years later. Writing in his 2011 biography on Apple’s founder, Isaacson said:

On the naming of Apple, [Jobs] said he was “on one of my fruitarian diets.” He said he had just come back from an apple farm, and thought the name sounded “fun, spirited, and not intimidating.”

And the rest is history, of course. The company’s name became so well known in computing that in June 2007 when Jobs took the stage at Macworld Expo to announce the iPhone, he also announced the company was ditching “Computer” from its name. “The Mac, iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone. Only one of those is a computer. So we’re changing the name,” Jobs said.

[Photo: Flickr user Mike Mozart]

Banana Republic

In 1978 Mel and Patricia Ziegler founded a company named “Banana Republic Travel & Safari Clothing Company.” The couple got the idea for the store after collecting unique clothing items from around the world on their work-related trips. They set up a single store in California and sold safari-themed items through it and a hand-drawn catalog with travel stories printed inside it. In 1983, Gap acquired “Banana Republic Travel & Safari Clothing Company” and truncated its name to “Banana Republic.” Today the company has 600 stores worldwide.

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So what makes this company’s name origin story so interesting? It’s the fact that the name hasn’t changed. Plenty of people out there find the moniker “banana republic” offensive. It’s often a derogatory term for small countries, usually in Africa or South America, that have predominantly brown or black populations and a politically unstable and corrupt government whose leaders take their orders from foreign institutions, like powerful U.S. companies.

According to Griots Republic, the term was first coined by American author O. Henry in 1901 to describe Honduras and neighboring countries, which were being exploited by U.S. corporations for their few natural resources. In this case, Honduras was being exploited by the United Fruit Company for its banana crops. This exploitation came at the expense of the country’s inhabitants. Today, by the way, the United Fruit Company is called Chiquita–yep, the company whose bananas adorn grocery store shelves across the country.

Given the negative and exploitative socioeconomic associations of the term, it is a bit surprising that even after 35 years, Gap has not changed Banana Republic’s name–and even highlighted it more by truncating the company’s original name. For what it’s worth, Mel Ziegler has gone on record saying he wishes Gap would. In 2012 he stated, “I wish they’d changed the name… it has nothing to do with what the original company was about.”

[Photo:
Kyle Loftus
/Unsplash]

Starbucks

Someone says coffee and you probably think “Starbucks.” But have you ever asked yourself just what is a “starbuck” exactly? The company, which was founded in 1971, certainly wasn’t named after any of its founders. So where did the name come from?

It was one of the hundreds of names that founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker considered, according to an interview Bowker did with the Seattle Times in 2008. Matter of fact, Starbucks came dangerously close to being named “Redhook,” Bowker recalled:

“By that time, I’d been compiling lists of names, and the methodology I used was to take the list and indiscriminately choose the ones I thought were promising, maybe 100 or so. I finally got down to about six names. I was sitting at a cafe at First and Virginia Street, and I crossed off the others one by one, and there was Redhook staring me in the face. At the time, I didn’t know it was the name of an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn. I have a propensity for using names that have ‘k’s in them. I like the plosive quality of the sound, the way it cuts through the air.”

Another potential pick was “Cargo House,” which Bowker said “would have been a terrible, terrible mistake.” It was then that Bowker’s ad agency partner mentioned that he thought words that began with the “st” sound sounded powerful. As Bowker recalled:

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“Somebody somehow came up with an old mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainier, and there was an old mining town called Starbo. As soon as I saw Starbo, I, of course, jumped to Melville’s first mate [named Starbuck] in Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick didn’t have anything to do with Starbucks directly; it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense. A lot of times you’ll see references to the coffee-loving first mate of the Pequod. And then somebody said to me, well no, it wasn’t that he loved coffee in the book, it was that he loved coffee in the movie. I don’t think even Scarecrow Video has a copy of that movie. Moby-Dick has nothing to do with coffee as far as I know.”

There are a lot of sources of inspiration when it comes to company names, but it’s a safe bet to opt for an apple orchard, river, or literary reference over cultural appropriation.

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