What’s in a name? The question has been asked more than once and more than one person has racked their brain trying to come up with a perfect name for a screenplay, a dog, and even a baby. There’s a Swiss consulting company that’ll charge you upwards of $29,000 to help you name a baby if you have a lot more income than creativity. And who knows, maybe it’ll be worth it. Things can get named in the most unlikely of ways, after all.
10. The Milky Way Got its Name From a Breastfeeding Goddess
The Milky Way galaxy, which we call home, features 200 billion stars alongside our own sun. It’s about 13.6 billion years old, which makes it a hair younger than the universe itself and word is it looks a bit like a Pringles potato chip. None of that explains why they call it the Milky Way, of course.
The somewhat delicious name can trace its roots to mythology, the same place that the names of most things in the cosmos come from. Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, all Roman gods. The Milky Way was once called “via lactea” by the Romans, which translates to “road of milk.” If you get a view of the Milky Way on a clear night away from the city, it looks stunning and amazing. And the splash of glowing white does bring to mind a road of milk, in a way.
Before the Romans, the Greeks also had a dairy-themed name which was “galaxias kyklos.” which means “milky circle.” So the same idea, more or less. As for the story? Zeus brought a young Hercules home to his wife Hera to breastfeed while she was asleep. Hera notoriously hated Hercules. His mother was a mortal, and when she woke and saw the baby, she pushed him away, spilling milk across the night sky. And this, the Milky Way was born.
9. Wall Street Got its Name Because of Dutch Settlers
For most of us, Wall Street is more of a concept than a real place. It’s been the subject of films and stories and we all know it’s a place where money is made, even if few of us will ever have a reason to be there. If you’re not fully familiar, Wall Street is eight blocks in Manhattan where the financial district is located. Both NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange are located on Wall Street.
The name can be traced back to the Dutch who settled New York back in the day as New Amsterdam. There are some variations on the details of the story as it dates back to the 1700s, but the wall part of the name referred to a genuine wall in several of them.
In one version, the Dutch signed a treaty with the Native Americans in the area and then broke that treaty. They built an actual wall as part of their defenses against them after the fact.
Another version of the story says there was a wall of earth that marked the end of the New Amsterdam settlement on its north side. This one could have been used to defend against Native Americans, but also against the English.
Yet another version suggests it may have gotten the name thanks to Walloons, an ethnic minority from Belgium. A number of early settlers were said to be Walloons.
8. Mastodons Were Named for Their Teeth
Mastodons are often confused with mammoths, but they were distinct animals with some clearly defined traits. A mastodon was shorter and had straighter tusks. And while a mammoth was a grazer that chewed on grasses, a mastodon ate tougher foods and its teeth were far different from the smooth, flat ones in the mouth of a mammoth. And that’s a very significant detail.
While a mammoth molar looks flat and smooth, a mastodon molar looks like a cross section of a mysterious cave complete with stalagmites. These numerous protuberances on the tooth would have aided the creature in chewing twigs and branches. The name mastodon comes from this feature and literally translates to “breast tooth” because when their fossilized remains were first discovered, it was thought the teeth looked like they were covered in nipples.
7. Minke Whales Were Named for an Inept Whale Spotter
When you hear the name “blue whale” you can make a pretty confident guess about how it got named. A killer whale, even though that’s an unofficial name, is also pretty easy to guess. But what about a minke whale? It’s an unusual name and its origin can be traced to one of the few instances in the history of nomenclature in which something was named solely to mock someone’s intelligence.
Back in the day, whaling was a common practice for many cultures. The people of Norway had a long history of whaling and that’s where you’ll find the origin of the minke whale. As the story goes, there was a man on board a Norwegian whaling ship named Meincke, whose job was to spot whales. It’s said he was new at his job and apparently not very good, either. He called out a blue whale, which you may recall is the largest creature to have ever lived on the planet at about 200 tons. Of course, it turned out to not be a blue whale at all but a minke whale, which weighs about 8 tons. As a result of his incredibly large mistake, the crew started calling them Minke’s whales in honor of the poor spotter.
6. The Bible is Named for a Lebanese Sea Port
The French word for library is bibliotheque. When a scholarly paper or book lists its references, it does so in a bibliography. And the book of scriptures for the Christian religion is commonly known as the Bible. There’s a reason they all sound similar, and it’s because the root of the words all come from the same place – a seaport in Lebanon.
Byblos has been occupied since the Neolithic period, as far back as 8000 BC to 4000 BC. During the Greco-Roman period of history, this became a vital place in the world of books because it was the center of all import and export of Egyptian papyrus, the paper on which everything was written at the time.
Papyrus paper soon became one of the most important resources in the world and the Greeks started calling it after the place it came from – Byblos. The name evolved from byblos to biblia as papyrus papers were assembled into books. By the 5th century, church leaders called the holy books “biblia” and, in time, that evolved to the word Bible.
5. Heroin Made People Feel Heroic
Heroin is a drug that we’re all warned from childhood to avoid because of how dangerous and addictive it is. But at some point you may have wondered why it shares a name with a female hero, albeit missing the letter “e.” It’s no accident or coincidence that the words are so similar. Heroin makes you feel heroic, was the thinking behind the name.
Remember, when heroin first appeared, it was used liberally as medicine. Heroin was a brand name for a cough medicine made by Bayer and the name comes from the German word for heroic. Why call it that? Because people who were using heroin at the time described themselves as feeling pretty heroic, and the name stuck.
4. Idaho Was Made Up
The etymology of place names is always fascinating because we often take place names for granted. How many people from California can confidently state they know what “California” even means? Well, the name comes from a 16th century Spanish romance novel. Califia was the queen of an island paradise. Other state names come from Native American languages, like Alaska, which comes from an Aleut word that means “great land.”
Unique among the states is Idaho. You could imagine this word being Native American in origin, and that’s what George M. Willing said when he presented it to Congress as a name for the state of Colorado. He said it meant “Gem of the Mountains.” The problem was it wasn’t a Native American word at all, he just made it up. So they rejected it and went with a Spanish origin for Colorado, naming it for the river, which was colored red or, in this case, “color rojo.”
A few years passed and Congress had a new state to name and, for whatever reason, they all forgot that Willing lied about Idaho being a Native American word. So that’s what they went with and to this day it still doesn’t mean anything.
3. The Bobbit Worm was Named After Lorena Bobbitt
One of the most terrifying creatures in nature is the bobbit worm. This deep sea worm lives under the sea floor waiting to ambush prey that settles over top of it. They can grow to be three meters in length, though most are around two to four feet. Their mandibles, which sit open at an almost 90 degree angle, snap shut with enough speed to cut their prey in half as they drag it under the silt and muck. They also have stinging bristles that can cause burning and even permanent numbness.
For all the creepiness, it’s arguable that the most off-putting thing about a bobbit worm is its name. They were named for Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who infamously cut off her abusive husband’s penis with a knife back in 1993. The worm shares the name for obvious, unpleasant reasons.
2. Scotch Tape is an Insult to the Scottish
In this day and age, most of us like to consider ourselves good people, at least you’d like to think so. The idea of mocking people because of where they come from in the world is roundly derided as being bigoted, prejudicial, and wrongheaded. Naming a product based on negative stereotypes about people from a certain country would absolutely be unacceptable today. But Scotch tape wasn’t made today. It was made in the 1920s.
Shortly after the tape was invented, creator Richard Drew was having it tested. A worker who was using it was annoyed that it wouldn’t stick, and the reason was due to the adhesive only existing on the edges of the tape, not the whole surface. The worker told Drew to take it back to his Scotch bosses – meaning Scottish people, who he was insulting for being cheap, which was the stereotype at the time. The name stuck, and it became a point of pride.
1. The Ouija Board (Allegedly) Named Itself
You can make a good case that the world’s best party game/way to accidentally summon a demon is a Ouija board. You could buy these as far back as 1891 and they’ve become even more popular in recent history thanks to their appearance in movies and elsewhere in pop culture. In 2014, they were a must-have Christmas item. Considering that every time someone uses them in movies, half the cast dies, that’s pretty impressive.
Demons and ghosts aside, the most unusual part of the Ouija board is its name. That’s not a word you run across very often and the internet is not going to provide you with much help either. That’s because the word Ouija comes from one place: the Ouija board.
As the story goes, a medium named Helen Peters was using a spirit board in 1890. She asked the board what she should call it and it told her Ouija. She asked it what that meant and the planchette on the board moved to the words “thank you.”
If the story is to be believed, then the Ouija board is perhaps the only inanimate object in history that named itself.