Monthly Archives: June 2012

By Any Other Name


Did you ever wonder where certain products got their name? Scotch tape. Kleenex. Q-tips. We use these products every day, but they are so familiar that we may seldom ponder why they are called what they are.

Why is a swab of cotton on the end of a stick a “Q” tip? Why not an “A” tip or a “B” tip? Turns out the “Q” stands for quality. The product was originally named “Baby Gays,” as they were mostly used on babies. No one seems quite sure where the “gays” part came from, including the manufacturer (Unilever), but hey, it was the 1920s. Just another case of words changing meaning over time.

Scotch tape, made by the 3M company, got its name partly because the company’s founders were Scottish. There is also a legend that their new 1930s invention, cellophane tape, was accused of shoddy construction since it only had adhesive on the edges and not the entire surface. It was therefore “scotch,” or made on the cheap. The M’s in “3M,” incidentally, stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, as the company started out in the mining industry.

As for Kleenex, the name is meant to denote “clean.” The “K” prefix and “-ex” suffix are borrowed from the Kimberly-Clark company’s first consumer brand, Kotex feminine products. Curiously, Kleenex were not originally intended as disposable handkerchiefs, but for the removal of cold cream. The nasal use significantly increased their popularity and sales.

All of these products had their birth in the 1920s and ‘30s, and all have become household words for their particular type of product, regardless of the trademark of the manufacturer.

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Schlemiel, Schlimazel

Any fan of the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” (and who wasn’t in the late seventies?) knows the iconic and catchy opening theme, which has the two of them hopscotching while saying a chant with some pretty weird-sounding words:  one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight (here comes the weird part) schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated.”

A schlemiel is an awkward and clumsy person, very accident-prone. A person with such a name is mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 1:6), and the Talmud says he met with an unfortunate end. Their awkwardness is painful to observe. As the BBC colorfully puts it, “When a schlemiel leaves the room, you feel as if someone came in.”

Schlimazel has the root “mazzal” which means “luck” in Hebrew, as heard in the toast “mazel tov” (“good luck”). When combined with the German-origin “slim” (meaning crooked), we have “crooked luck.” So, basically a schlimazel is usually down on their luck and gets dumped on a lot. Sometimes literally (it is said that a schlemiel spills his soup, and a schlimazel is the one he spills it on).

Speaking of German – or, speaking German – we come to hasenpfeffer, a nice German-sounding word for rabbit stew (literally, “pepper rabbit”), as you may remember from Bugs Bunny, who wanted to avoid being an ingredient.

So, this hopscotch chant, while seemingly nonsense (which I think is a pre-requisite for hopscotch chants), makes reference to both German and Jewish immigrants who settled in the Milwaukee area, where “Laverne & Shirley” was set. It also suits the title characters, who were often accident-prone and unlucky, and who probably had hasenpfeffer with their beer.

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