The Top 10: Bizarre Things That Things Are Named After

Subbuteo was named after a small bird of prey

John Rentoul
Friday 05 November 2021 12:38
<p>Out on the wing: the game where you ‘flick to kick’ has avian roots</p>

Out on the wing: the game where you ‘flick to kick’ has avian roots

This list was suggested by Stewart Wood, after Robert Macfarlane reminded us of how the game of Subbuteo was so called because its inventor, Peter Adolph, had his trademark application for “Hobby” rejected. So he took the name from the Latin name of the hobby, a small falcon, Falco subbuteo (Falco, sickle, which its claws resemble; subbuteo, like a buzzard).

1. Adobe. The American software company’s founder John Warnock named it after a creek which runs behind his house. Nominated by Robert Boston.

2. Audi. Latin for “Hark” or “Hear!” August Horch founded a company named after himself before leaving to start another. His former partners sued over the name and he had to find another. While discussing it with friends, his friend’s son, doing his Latin homework in the corner of the room, suggested “Audi” since “Horch” as a verb in German means “Hark”. Thanks to Stewart Slater.

3. Frankfurt Hahn airport. It is 129km from Frankfurt – seven-and-a-half hours by bike – and nearer to Luxembourg. Thanks to Nick Clayton.

4. Oasis. Named after a leisure centre in Swindon, the closure of which was announced last year. Liam Gallagher chose a new name for his band, Rain, in 1991, from a poster for an Inspiral Carpets gig at the leisure centre; the poster was on the wall of the bedroom he shared with brother Noel, a roadie for Inspiral Carpets. From Edward Lennox.

5. Pupil. The pupil of the eye comes from Latin pupilla, little doll, because you can see a tiny reflection of yourself when you  look into someone’s eyes. (Pupil’s other meaning as a young student comes from the same source, as pupilla is also the diminutive of girl, and pupillus that of boy.) Thanks to No Ordinary Cat.

6. Quark. From “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” in Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, read by Murray Gell-Mann, who posited it. Thanks to John Peters.

7. Spam. Unwanted advertising emails sent in bulk, from a Monty Python sketch of the greasy spoon cafe in which every dish available includes Spam. Nominated by Robert Boston.

8. Starbucks. The coffee shop was named after Starbuck, the first mate on the Pequod, the whaling ship in Moby-Dick, the 1851 novel by Herman Melville. Another from Robert Boston.

9. Tank. The military vehicle is named after the code name given to them during their development in the First World War. The military actually thought that the correct name would be “Caterpillar Machine Gun Destroyers” or “Land Cruisers”, said Conor Downey.

10. Thagomizer. The tail spikes of a stegosaurus were named in a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon: a cave person points to the end of a picture of a dinosaur saying it is called “after the late Thag Simmons”. I suppose it is thagomiser in British English. Thanks to James Mendelsohn and Elliot Kane.

I did Top 10 unexpected etymologies a long time ago, which was similar but different, and more recently a Top 10 accidental etymologies.

Next week: Ministerial statements defending the government just before U-turns, after Kwasi Kwarteng explained why it was right to block Owen Paterson’s punishment for paid lobbying.

Coming soon: Lost technologies, such as Greek fire, an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine empire that burnt while floating on water.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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