9 People, Places & Things That Changed Their Names

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When much-reviled security firm Blackwater changed its name to Xe last week, it wasn't just cleverly attempting to squash criticism by tossing out a name nobody would know how to pronounce. (Although that idea was probably a foreseen fringe benefit of the switch.) It was just joining in on a long tradition of corporations, places, and people opting to pick up a catchier, less tainted, or more unique name. Here are nine other famous entities that changed their names; you might not even recognize them by their original monikers.

1. BackRub

In 1996, Stanford computer science grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page started working on a new web crawling search engine. Since the engine used backlinks to gauge how important a site was, the enterprising pair called their creation "BackRub." By 1997 they decided this name wasn't so hot and brainstormed some new ideas before eventually settling on "Google."

2. Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web

"BackRub" sounds positively inspired compared to this behemoth of a title. When David Filo and Jerry Yang started a guide to Internet content in 1994, they christened it "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web." Like Page and Brin, they quickly realized they might need a name that took less than three minutes to say, so they switched to a word they liked from the dictionary "“ one that described someone who was "rude, unsophisticated, and uncouth." And that's how Yahoo! was born.

3. Jeff Gillooly

If ever anyone had good cause to change his name, it's Jeff Gillooly. While he was married to former figure skater Tonya Harding, Gillooly became a despised national figure for helping orchestrate the knee whacking of Harding's rival Nancy Kerrigan. To make things worse, he apparently sold a sex tape of one of his romps with Harding to a tabloid TV show. After spending six months in prison on racketeering charges, Gillooly returned home to Oregon, but picked up a new name, "Jeff Stone."

New name or not, he was still the same old Jeff Gillooly. According to a 2008 Newsweek report, Stone has been briefly married, divorced, twice arrested for domestic violence (although the charges were dropped), owned a tanning salon, sold used cars, and dated a stripper. Sort of makes Tonya's boxing career sound respectable.

4. Brad's Drink

In 1893, pharmacist Caleb Bradham created a new cola formula at his New Bern, North Carolina, business. Customers loved the sweet, fizzy libation, but the name "Brad's Drink" didn't really do much for them. After five years, Bradham decided maybe it was time to come up with a better brand name for his drink, so he started calling it Pepsi Cola.

5. Bombay

In 1995, millions of Indians went to sleep in Bombay and woke up in Mumbai. How did that happen? Since India achieved independence from British rule in 1947, various place names around the country have been changed to reflect Indian heritage rather than British colonial influences. When the right-wing Shiv Sena party romped in India's 1995 elections, one of its early acts was changing Bombay's name to Mumbai in honor of the city's patron Hindu goddess, Mumbadevi.

Mumbai's hardly alone in getting renamed, though. In 2001 Calcutta became Kolkata, while Madras became Chennai in 1996.

6. David Jones

Jones showed a certain flair for showmanship and songwriting in the early 1960s, but he was unfortunately named. Pop music already had a Davy Jones, the diminutive member of The Monkees. To spare himself any career-killing confusion, David Jones decided to adopt a stage name in 1965. He settled on the last name Bowie in part due to his fascination with Alamo-defending patriot Jim Bowie and his namesake knife. Jones wasn't instantly successful after he became David Bowie, but the Thin White Duke eventually rode his new name to stardom.

7. Andersen Consulting

In 1989, accounting giant Arthur Andersen spun off its consulting division into its own linked business that quickly grew into a juggernaut. When Andersen Consulting was raking in over $9 billion a year by the end of the 1990s, the consultancy no longer had much of a desire to stick with the accounting firm that incubated it. Following a rather acrimonious split in 2000, Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture.

Splitting up and changing names proved to be a stroke of luck for Accenture. Barely a year after the two companies parted ways, Arthur Andersen's name became inextricably linked to Enron-type accounting shenanigans, and by the end of 2002, the company's business was for all intents and purposes dead. Accenture, on the other hand, didn't suffer from negative associations with its document-shredding former brethren and remains on the Fortune Global 500.

8. David John Moore Cornwell

Cornwell enjoyed long, successful careers in the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, and he started writing novels while he was with MI5. As it turned out, the novels were quite good, but he couldn't publish them under his own name due to British foreign office rules. Cornwell adopted the pseudonym John le Carre so he could stay in the good graces of his bosses, but it wouldn't matter for long. After achieving major commercial success and critical acclaim for his dazzling novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carre quit his day job in 1964 to focus on writing full-time. The decision paid off when le Carre became one of the most successful thriller writers of his generation.

9. Blue Ribbon Sports

In 1963, an ambitious young runner named Phil Knight met with the Japanese running shoe company Onitsuka about distributing their sneakers in the U.S. The Japanese makers of Tiger running shoes decided to give Knight a shot, but they needed to know the name of Knight's company. He responded that he was running Blue Ribbon Sports, and he soon began selling Tigers out of his car at track meets around the U.S. By 1971, though, his business had grown to the point where Knight was making his own shoes. He decided to name the shoes and the business after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

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iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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