Etymythology

"All too often, a buisness stakes a claim to a common term based solely on romantic corporate mythmaking," writes Ben Zimmer in the New York Times (5/2/10). Keds, for instance, claimed to be "the first shoes called sneakers," that the term was coined by its ad agency in 1917. In fact, the term "sneakers had been sneaking around since at least 1887," when the Boston Journal of Education reported that schoolboys were calling their tennis shoes "sneakers."

Keds wasn’t even the first advertiser to call its shoes sneakers — the Jordan Marsh department store was using the term in its ads "starting in the summer of 1889." When this came to light, Keds backed off its claim, but it is not alone in its brand mythmaking. Cracker Jack famously claimed a salesman came up with the name in 1824, but "crackerjack was already in wide circulation to refer to fast horses, skillful baseball players or anything of superior quality."

Hershey’s meanwhile doesn’t claim to have invented the name "Kisses," but suggests it may have had something to do with "the sound or motion of the chocolate being deposited during the manufacturing process." The truth, according to blogger Samira Kawash, is that when Hershey’s Kisses were first introduced in 1907, "a candy ‘kiss’ was just another name for a small, bite-size candy." The lesson is clear: "When a company is trying to make its product iconic … it doesn’t hurt to inject a pleasant etymological tidbit, no matter how easy it is to disprove."

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