Naming things is harder than you might think, at least for some people. The internet is rife with tales of dubious veracity claiming baby name consultants are being paid tens of thousands of dollars to help rich people name their children. And even if they aren’t real, there are a plethora of sites that exist to help you name a child, a pet or anything else.
We like names that are profound, that have meaning and history. But sometimes a name just has a bizarre and unexpected origin. Let’s look at some of those.
10. Buffets in Japan are Called Vikings Because Smörgåsbord Is Hard to Say in Japanese
For some people there’s no greater joy than heading to a buffet. Just a huge spread of food from which you can eat your fill for a set price. While America has some of the world’s biggest buffets, they can’t lay claim to creating the idea. It was the good people of Sweden who first formalized the idea of this non-stop meal. They called it smörgåsbord, and the idea was to keep guests fed who had traveled a long way to see you. So you just left the spread out and refilled it as necessary as people kept coming to eat.
Leaping across the world to Japan we find not a smörgåsbord but a viking. You’ll see signs in Japan advertising buffets with English signage proclaiming things like “lunch viking.” This dates back to 1957 when Teikoku Hoteru, Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel manager, traveled to Sweden and discovered his first smörgåsbord. He loved the idea but hated the name as translating it to Japanese was a chore and a half. But the Kirk Douglas movie “The Vikings” had just come out, and both were from the same nation so it seemed like a reasonable concession to make. Smörgåsbord became viking and has remained so in Japan ever since.
9. Ritter Sport Chocolate Was Named for Pockets
Have you ever had a Ritter Sport chocolate bar? They’re not as commonplace as Snickers, but they do stand out in a crowd thanks to their square shape if nothing else. The name, however, is a bit of a head scratcher. Even without any history you could guess that maybe Ritter was the name of the company or the inventor. But why Sport? Chocolate is hardly a sporting food, as far as most people are concerned. Turns out it’s that square shape again.
When the chocolate was being developed in 1932, one of the co-founders thought it would make sense if the bar could fit in your pocket. More specifically, she wanted a chocolate bar you could fit into your sports jacket pocket that wouldn’t break easily or hang out so you’re at risk of losing or damaging it. And that reason alone is why it got the name sport. So if you ever get sick of chocolate breaking in your sport jacket pocket, you know what to do.
8. Emergency Sirens Were Named for the Mythological Creatures
Is anything simultaneously more useful and more annoying than an emergency siren? You’re glad to have one when it’s needed but if they ever go off by accident or as a test they’re just so grating.
The modern emergency siren can trace itself back to Charles Cagniard de la Tour, who created the first true siren as we’d understand it today. The noise was what gave rise to the name as Cagniard de la Tour was taken by the idea that the device would be able to be heard even under water and if there was one other shrill thing that people were known to hear from the water it was sirens of the mythological variety.
In Greek mythology, sirens were known to lure sailors to their death with their irresistible song. Ideally an emergency siren should prevent death, but that’s neither here nor there.
7. Sea Urchins Were Named After Hedgehogs
Have you ever wondered why sea urchins are called sea urchins and not just urchins? Makes it seem like there should be a land urchin, right? There was! And that’s very integral to how the sea urchin got its name in the first place.
Once upon a time the humble hedgehog was known as an urchin. That was the Middle English word for the spiny little mammal. Like hedgehogs, sea urchins are covered in spines and the two are vaguely similar when a hedgehog is curled up in a ball. So for a time it made sense and sea urchins were actually called sea hedgehogs for a spell, as well. Obviously the passage of time allowed us to separate the two, especially thanks to the fact they have little in common besides a very basic resemblance.
6. Military Tanks Were Named for a Ruse
Tanks have been a huge part of warfare since the First World War when they were first deployed and proved to be an awe-inspiring force on the field of battle. Modern tanks have come a long way since then and the word is so ubiquitous that if you play online games characters that are meant to be tough and take a lot of abuse without a lot of finesse are often referred to as tanks. But what does that word even mean in reference to the machines?
Traditionally a tank refers to a holding container. Your gas tank, a fish tank, whatever. But a massive, cannon-wielding war machine doesn’t have all that much in common with such things.
Turns out, when tanks were being developed, the process was very hush hush. So when the British were developing them they pretended they were making water tanks. The idea was they were just devices to carry water to soldiers in desert areas. But that’s what everyone working on them called them to maintain the ruse and the name stuck.
5. We Call Political Parties Left and Right Because of Where They Sat in France
Few things are more fraught with tension and division than politics these days. The mere mention of “left” or “right” is enough to make some people rage against their friends and neighbors. And while the reasons behind any discourse can be varied, taking a step back to determine where you sit in that discourse opens its own unusual can of words.
Regardless of your own politics, the reason you may qualify as left or right, not ideologically but semantically, is a bit bizarre. After all, what do those words even mean? Left and right are almost always used to differentiate between subjective directions. Politically, that’s actually where the terms come from as well.
In modern parlance, left tends to mean liberal while right means conservative. That extends well beyond American politics and the parties that most closely align with those views. We get both terms from the French Parliament, the one formed right after the French Revolution.
In the French National Assembly, if the Speaker was looking out at the assembled politicians, to his right were the nobility and religious leaders who held more conservative viewpoints. They tended to favor the aristocracy and the upper class. To the left were the common folks and the revolutionaries whose interests were more aligned with the middle class citizens and changing the policies of old. Had the seating arrangements been different, we’d likely have different terms today.
4. There Are Two Theories For Why Pants Are Referred to as Pairs
Have you ever heard someone crack a joke about why we call pants pairs if there’s only one of them? It’s not really a good joke but it at least brings up an interesting point. Pants aren’t technically a pair of anything so how did they get the name? The answer is that they used to be a pair of things and we just simplified the design but never accepted a change in name.
There are two potential explanations for the plurality of pants but it’s hard to narrow down which one is the single source of the duality.
There’s a more mundane theory that pants is one of those uncommon but not wholly unheard of “plurale tantum” words, or “plural only.” We have a number of them in English, words that are always plural and refer to things that are singular but involve two parts. Like pants, there are glasses, scissors, pliers, and so on. We call all of them pairs because it has two parts in the whole one thing.
The more fun theory, but the one that really doesn’t have a ton of supporting evidence, is that once upon a time pantaloons were, in fact, two things. The idea was that you put on each leg of your pantaloons separately and tied them together.
3. Noble Gasses Are Named More or Less as an Insult
Who doesn’t love the Periodic table with all its lanthanides and actinides? And there are also the noble gasses which just sound quite fancy. But scientists don’t tend to name things in a void, so where did the noble part of the name come from?
The seven noble gasses on the Periodic Table include things like argon and xenon and they were named by Hugo Erdmann, a German chemist. Because the gasses don’t react with other elements on the table, he gave them the name noble. It’s essentially a dig at the upper class because, like nobility, the gasses have nothing to do with everyone else.
2. Cells Were Named for Rooms in a Monastery
Every kid in biology class will have that day when they break out a microscope and take a look at an onion skin or something similar at a high rate of magnification. This will likely be your introduction to the world of cells and you can see them clear as day in the microscope.This is a cornerstone for what you can learn in biology and understanding cells, how they’re formed and how they work can lead through all kinds of biology, biochemistry, genetics and much more.
But if you reel it back in and put aside the hard science for a moment, you can focus on the name itself. Cell. Every kind of living thing is made up of cells and different cells form different structures with different functions, but we still call all of them cells.
Robert Hooke is the man who gave us the word and he chose it after creating a microscope advanced enough to allow him to see the cells in a piece of cork. The cells, to his eye, looked like the rooms in a monastery, all lined up together like little boxes, which were also called cells.
1. Polka Dots Were Named to Capitalize on the Popularity of the Polka Dance
The polka dot pattern is something instantly recognizable the world over. It’s pretty simple, after all,and legitimately consists of circles, or dots, of one color on a background of another color. Typically, the dots are either all the same size or arranged in the same pattern but it’s unlikely anyone is going to be such a stickler for the rules as to call you out if you refer to irregularly sized dots as polka dots.
The name polka dot is a bit quirky, of course, since polka is a form of dance and music and it’s not especially known for dots at all. It first appeared in the 1800s with examples in print showing up in 1857 and thereabouts.
Polka, the dance, comes to us from Bohemia in the 1830s and is often associated with Polish culture where it was warmly embraced. So you’re looking at about a 20 plus year spread between the origin of the dance and then the polka dot itself. The connection between them is that the dot was riding the dance’s coattails, so to speak. The dance was popular when the polka dot pattern first emerged, so to capitalize on that popularity the pattern was named after the dance. They have nothing else in common beyond that.