In a word: The long and short of well-known names

I’ve recently come to realize that I spend a lot of time (too much time?)…

I’ve recently come to realize that I spend a lot of time (too much time?) thinking about the names of various companies and their products. I recently wrote about businesses that use lowercase letters in their names and what some of those names actually mean, so I should be ready to move on to other weighty topics, right? But apparently that just primed the mental pump.

So with this column — on the varied abbreviations and acronyms many well-known companies use in their names — maybe I’ll finally get the monkey off my back.

Starting close to home we have our own L.L. Bean, whose initials stand for Leon Leonwood. Probably. Years ago some people claimed that he may have been born “Leon Linwood,” and that his middle name may have morphed gradually into “Leonwood” thanks to our somewhat unusual way of pronouncing words. But by the time he’d filled out his draft registration card in 1918, his middle name was definitely Leonwood.

On the other hand, there’s no debating that the initials of JC Penney appropriately stand for “James Cash.” Clear enough, but who’s behind the first two letters in BJ’s Wholesale Club? That would be Beverly Jean Weich, daughter of Mervyn Weich, the first president of the company, which was founded by the Zayre Corporation in 1984.

And just in case you’ve ever wondered where the country’s few remaining Kmart stores got their name, they were so christened in 1977 from the eponymous SS Kresge stores of Sebastian Spering Kresge.

Not surprisingly the names of many companies are actually acronyms. For example, GEICO stands for Government Employee Insurance Company, and NECCO means New England Confectionery Company – even though those tasty candy wafers we all ate as kids are now made in Mexico.

Whenever you find yourself having to prove to a computer that you’re human, you know that you’re dealing with a CAPTCHA, or a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

Next up is the TASER (which I promise has nothing to do with my mood after a recent frustrating encounter with a CAPTCHA test). The TASER, it’s been said, somehow gets its name from the 1911 science fiction novel “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.”

A collaboration between a watchmaker and a car company gave us the SMART (Swatch Mercedes Art) Car, while FIAT stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory Turin, and not “Fix it again, Tony!”). And no, PAM cooking spray is not named after a woman, but rather is a Product of Arthur Meyerhoff.

Not an acronym is CVS, which is what Consumer Value Stores decided to become in 1996, as the company became more pharmacy oriented. (It’s not an acronym because you pronounce the individual letters, so it’s considered an initialism.)

And CVS is far from alone in becoming known by just its initials. Columbia Broadcasting System changed its name to CBS in 1974, while fellow broadcaster Entertainment and Sports Programming Network shortened its name to ESPN in 1985 after the folks there decided that the old name “took too long to paint across our chests on game day.”

In 2002 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing officially became 3M as it continued to diversify its business. Meanwhile, the American Association of Retired Persons changed its name to AARP in 1998 after realizing that many of its members were not actually retired (including yours truly).

But how to pronounce it? There seems to be a divide, with one knowledgeable but dated AARP source saying it rhymes with “harp,” while some of AARP’s own videos pronouncing the individual letters. I wish they would officially retire one of them.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


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