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The Hidden Meanings Behind 15 Company Names

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We spend most of our day surrounded by popular companies and major brands, but have you ever wondered what their names actually mean? Here are the hidden meanings behind 15 of them.

1. TWITTER

In 2006, co-founder Jack Dorsey created Twitter as an online SMS service that would update in real-time on a webpage. Its working name was called “Status,” but Dorsey wanted to create a buzzing feeling when you heard the company’s name, so he later thought of “Twitch” because that’s what a phone would do when it would vibrate. However, Dorsey eventually landed on “Twitter” because he didn’t think “Twitch” was a strong enough name.

“We wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket,” Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word ‘twitch,’ because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But ‘twitch’ is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.”

2. SKYPE

First released in 2003, Skype is derived from "Sky peer-to-peer,” as in a way to connect people together from the “sky” wirelessly. It was then shortened to "Skyper." However, Skyper.com was already a registered domain, so its developers simply dropped the “r” at the end to become Skype.

3. FACEBOOK

Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, Inc. as a way to connect Harvard University students online in 2004. The company’s name comes from the physical “face book” directories of students’ faces and names given throughout university campuses in the United States.

Originally, it was called TheFacebook.com, but Zuckerberg dropped the “The” at the beginning of the company’s name a year later. Now TheFacebook.com simply re-directs users to Facebook.com. When asked what he would do differently during an interview with TechCrunch, Zuckerberg answered, “I’d get the right domain name.”

4. LEGO

Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen established the name LEGO in 1934 for his manufacturing company, which originally produced stepladders, ironing boards, stools, and wooden toys. The name comes from the Danish phrase "Leg Godt," which means “Play Well” in English and "I Put Together" or "I Assemble" in Latin. LEGO didn’t create the colorful interlocking plastic bricks that the company is known for until 1949. 

5. AMAZON

Starting in 1994 and originally named “Cadabra,” as in "abracadabra," founder Jeff Bezos re-named his retail company Amazon a year later after his lawyer mistook it for "cadaver." Bezos landed on Amazon because it’s the name of the largest river in the world and he wanted his company to reflect its size with the launch tagline "Earth's biggest bookstore" in 1995. He also liked the name because it would be first in web listings, which were in alphabetical order at the time. Jeff Bezos also considered the name Relentless.com, which he still owns, but re-directs to Amazon.com instead.

In addition, Amazon’s logo also reflected the company by selling everything from A to Z.

6. STARBUCKS

Established in 1971, Starbucks founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker landed on the company’s name after Bowker’s business partner mentioned words beginning with the letters “ST” were powerful and bold. He then noticed the small mining town of “Starbo” on an old mining map of the Cascade Range. Bowker, who is also a writer, later remembered the name of Captain Ahab's first mate in Moby-Dick was “Starbuck” and believed that was a much stronger name. They also believed Starbuck loved coffee, but he doesn’t actually drink coffee in the book. He drinks it in the film adaptation.

“I saw Starbo, I, of course, jumped to Melville's first mate [named Starbuck] in Moby-Dick,” Gordon Bowker told The Seattle Times. “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."

The Starbucks founders also considered the names "Cargo House" and "Pequod," the name of Captain Ahab’s ship.

7. 7-ELEVEN

Founded in 1927 and originally called “Tote'm Stores”—because customers toted away their groceries—7-Eleven changed its name to reflect its new business hours in 1946. The convenience store chain was open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., which was considered extended hours during the '40s. Now most 7-Eleven stores are open 24 hours a day, with the first store to do so in Austin, Texas in 1963.

8. APPLE

Although many people believe it was named after The Beatles’s record label, Apple Corps Ltd, because its co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were big fans of the British rock band, Apple, Inc. was actually named after an apple farm the pair visited in Oregon. Jobs liked the name Apple because it was “fun, spirited and not intimidating.”

“It was a couple of weeks later when we came up with a name for the partnership,” recalled Wozniak. “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.”

9. HÄAGEN-DAZS

Although it’s not actually a Danish phrase or word, ice cream man Reuben Mattus called his company Häagen-Dazs as a tribute to Denmark's respect and good treatment of Jewish people during World War II.

“The only country which saved the Jews during World War II was Denmark, so I put together a totally fictitious Danish name and had it registered,” said Mattus. “Häagen-Dazs doesn’t mean anything. [But] it would attract attention, especially with the umlaut.”

10. SAMSUNG

In 1938, founder Lee Byung-chull named his company Samsung because it means “Three Stars” or “Tristar” in Korean. He wanted his company to last forever like stars in the sky, while the number three represents something big, powerful, and bright in Korean culture.

11. IKEA

Seventeen-year-old businessman Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in 1943. The furniture company’s name is actually an acronym for Ingvar Kamprad’s name and his childhood farm and hometown in Sweden, Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd.

12. GOOGLE

Founded in 1996 and originally called “BackRub,” the internet giant Google received its name when co-founder Larry Page misspelled the number “Googol,” which is a digit followed by 100 zeros. Page and co-founder Sergey Brin decided to keep the name because the domain name was available. “It turns out that most people misspell some things,” said Page, which is why Google corrects spelling mistakes for all searches.

13. PANERA BREAD

In 1987, Ken Rosenthal started the St. Louis Bread Company in Kirkwood, Missouri. As it grew and expanded into other states, the name changed to Panera Bread when bakery and café chain Au Bon Pain bought it in 1997. The company’s name is made up of two words, “Pane” (Italian for Bread) and “Era” (or Time). It’s also Latin for “breadbasket.” “We wanted a name that was an empty vessel we could put personality into, and that’s how we ended up with Panera,” said co-founder Ron Shaich.

14. SIX FLAGS

The amusement park chain is named after its first location, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. The six flags refers to the six different regions that governed the Lone Star State: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. Today, Six Flags operates 20 theme parks and water parks throughout North America.

15. GAP, INC.

In 1969, Donald and Doris F. Fisher opened the first Gap retail store in San Francisco, California. The store mainly sold Levi's jeans and vinyl records that were targeted to teenagers and young adults, so the Fishers named their store after the generation gap between younger and older people.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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