How 14 Car Companies Got Their Names

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Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

Most of us probably don't put too much thought into our cars' names. Sure, we'll take the wheel of a Toyota or a Chevrolet, but how did those cars pick up their monikers? Let's take a look at a few that aren't quite as obvious as the Ford name.

1. Nissan

The company we now know as Nissan got its start in 1914 as DAT Motorcar. The "DAT" name came from the first initial of the three founders' family names. In 1931, DAT introduced a new small car they called the Datson, which later morphed into "Datsun."

Meanwhile, businessman Yoshisuke Aikawa founded an industrial holding company in 1928 and named his new venture Nippon Sangyo. (The name loosely translates into "Japan Industries.") Aikawa's company bought out DAT in 1931, and eventually the Nippon Sangyo name became abbreviated as Nissan.

Some drivers may remember cruising around in Datsuns before they ever got behind the wheel of a Nissan. What prompted the name change? Until the early 1980s, the Datsun badge appeared on the cars Nissan exported out of Japan. In 1981, though, Nissan execs announced that they were changing this practice in order to strengthen global awareness of the Nissan brand. Thus, you can't buy a Datsun Z anymore, but you can get the keys to a Nissan one.

2. Toyota

Toyota didn't start out as a car company. It wasn't called Toyota, either. In 1926, Sakichi Toyoda founded the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, a company that made looms, not cars. In 1933, Toyoda's son Kiichiro started a separate motors division, and the company's cars quickly took off.

How did the name get from "Toyoda" to "Toyota," though? In 1936, the company held a competition to design a new logo, and the winner consisted of the three Japanese characters that made up the Toyoda name. However, after giving it some thought, the Toyoda family decided that the slightly tweaked "Toyota" was stronger. Writing out "Toyoda" required nine brush strokes, whereas "Toyota" only required eight, a lucky number in Japan. Plus, the name just sounded better, so Toyoda became Toyota.

3. Chrysler

Walter Chrysler probably wasn't on anyone's short list of potential moguls when he was a young man. He spent much of his youth kicking around Texas as a railroad mechanic, and although the work wasn't glamorous, he developed quite a skill set as a machinist. In 1911, the gifted 36-year-old machinist became production chief for Buick, and by 1919 he was making millions of dollars a year as head of the company.

Chrysler eventually left Buick, and after a failed attempt to take over the Willys-Overland Motor Company, he uses some of his accumulated wealth to buy a controlling interest in the floundering Maxwell Motor Company. Chrysler's new company introduced a popular car called the Chrysler in 1924, and by the next year the Maxwell name had disappeared in favor of Chrysler.

4. Honda

Honda bears the name of its founder, Soichiro Honda. Honda was a precocious mechanic who started the Honda Motor Co. Ltd. in 1946 to build small motorcycles. Although the motorcycle business got off to a slow start, by the 1960s the business had become one of the world's largest manufacturers of bikes. In 1963, Honda introduced its first production automobile, the Honda T360 pickup truck.

5. Buick

Scottish immigrant David Dunbar Buick was an inventive fellow; before he ever got into the motors game, he created a more efficient way of manufacturing enameled cast-iron bathtubs. Buick began toying with engines during the 1890s, and after starting one failed engine company, he tried again with the Buick Manufacturing Company in 1902. Buick's cars were terrific -- his pioneering use of overhead valve technology made them tough to beat -- but he had trouble actually producing and delivering them on time. As a result he always needed to find new investors to advance him cash, and eventually his company was sold out from under him to General Motors founder William C. Durant.

In 1908, Durant gave Buick the heave-ho and a $100,000 severance check. Buick tried to parlay this money into a great fortune by investing in oil fields, but he didn't have any luck. When his attempts to get back into the car business in the 1920s floundered, he ended up working as an instructor at the Detroit School of Trades. That venture didn't go so well, either; the school demoted him to receptionist. When Buick died in 1929, he was flat broke.

6. Chevrolet

Remember how William Durant forced David Buick out of Buick's own company? Karma can be rough. In 1910, Durant's own creditors forced him out of his management role at the company he started, General Motors. Durant didn't stay down for long, though. He teamed with Swiss race car driver and mechanic Louis Chevrolet to start a new motor company in 1911. The pair named the company after Chevrolet, and legend has it that they developed a logo that resembled the Swiss cross of Chevrolet's homeland. (Other stories indicate that Durant copied the bowtie logo from a French hotel's wallpaper.)

The company quickly earned the pair quite a bit of loot. Durant suddenly had enough cash to regain control of General Motors, and in 1917 GM acquired Chevrolet. Louis Chevrolet didn't do quite as well, though. He sold his share of the company to Durant in 1914, and although his career had other highlights, including a 7th-place finish at the 1919 Indianapolis 500, he never enjoyed much financial success and eventually had to return to Chevy as a consultant.

7. Dodge

Brothers John and Horace Dodge were gifted machinists who began a Michigan bicycle company in the 1890s. Eventually they sold this business and began creating transmissions for Olds in 1902 and then Ford in 1903. However, they longed to create cars of their own, so in 1913 they left their lucrative supplier positions at Ford and started working on their own car designs. The brothers' cars were soon the second-hottest sellers in the country, and they were fabulously wealthy.

8. Mercedes

In 1897, Austrian entrepreneur Emil Jellinek began ordering Daimler cars that he could drive in some of Europe's quickly growing auto races. It took a few years, but by the dawn of the 20th century, Jellinek had a number of Daimlers that he adored driving. He often raced under an assumed name when driving these cars; he took on the name of his 12-year-old daughter Mercedes. In 1900, Jellinek worked out a deal with Daimler to order 36 new cars on the condition that the cars be called Mercedes. Daimler agreed, and the famed luxury brand name was born.

9. Volvo

The Swedish automaker's name is Latin for "I roll," a conjugation of the word volvere. The company got its start as part of the Swedish ball bearing company SKF, and after SKF trademarked the Volvo name in 1915, the company planned to put the "Volvo" name on most anything that rolled, from bears to bicycles to automobiles. The plan wasn't quick to get off the ground, though; thanks to World War I, Volvo didn't actually start its car business until 1926.

And a few quick ones:

10. Cadillac: Named for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit in the early 18th century.

11. Saab: Abbreviation of "Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolag," which is Swedish for "Swedish Airplane, Limited."

12. Volkswagen: German for "people's car."

13. Lexus: Toyota went to its ad agency and an image-consulting firm when it needed a name for its luxury division. At first, they decided on "Alexis," but it gradually evolved into Lexus.

14. Mazda: According to Mazda's website, the brand's name is borrowed from the Zoroastrian religion. Ahura Mazda is the Zoroastrian "God of reason who granted wisdom and united man, nature and the other gods."

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11 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah

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The first Rosh Hashanah supposedly occurred in the Garden of Eden. But what does this important Jewish holiday—which will take place from September 18 through September 20 in 2020—involve today?

1. Rosh Hashanah literally translates to "head of the year."

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can fall any time between the fifth of September and the fifth of October on the Gregorian Calendar. On the Jewish calendar, it is the first day of the month of Tishrei and marks the start of the High Holy Days. These days are also known as the days of awe, ushering in the final phase of atonement. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world.

2. For the month before rosh Hashanah, Jews ask for forgiveness from family and friends.

In order to have a clean slate going into the New Year, Jews ask for forgiveness from those close to them. The idea here is that God cannot forgive transgressions against people until those wronged have forgiven.

3. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah happens over two days.

These days are combined into the yoma arichta, or "long day." At sunset on the first evening, candles are lit by the lady of the house. Then blessings are recited: a traditional holiday blessing over the candles, followed by the shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for special occasions. Both evenings also feature a festive meal.

4. Unlike December 31, the Jewish new year is a time of serious reflection and repentance.

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Even Jews who go to synagogue at no other time of year will often go on the high holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religious poems called piyyutim are recited and a special high holy day prayer book called the machzor is used. The service is often longer than Sabbath services, and centers around the theme of God’s sovereignty, remembrance, and blasts of the shofar (see below).

5. Despite not being a huge party, Jews are expected to enjoy the yom tov, or holiday.

People often get fresh haircuts and new clothes in order to celebrate. The tradition is to wear white clothing as a sign of purity and renewal. Some avoid wearing red, since it's the color of blood.

6. According to the Talmud, God inscribes everyone's names into one of three books on Rosh Hashanah.

The metaphorical understanding is that good people go into the Book of Life, and evil ones into the Book of Death; those who are in the middle are put in an intermediate one and have judgment put off until Yom Kippur. Since virtually no one is all good or all evil, you're supposed to assume you fall somewhere in the middle, and in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year, it is important to do everything possible to atone before Yom Kippur.

7. The sounding of the shofar is Rosh Hashanah's most iconic image.

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The shofar is a ram’s horn that is curved and bent. It is hollowed out and blown during religious ceremonies to make three different sounds. Hearing it is meant to call you to repent.

8. While some Jewish holidays involve fasting, Rosh Hashanah involves a feast.

It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to represent having a sweet year ahead. A round challah bread symbolizes the cycle of the year (another interpretation is that it represents a crown and thus God’s sovereignty). Sometimes a fish, or just its head, is included, possibly to represent that as fish cannot survive without water, Jews cannot survive without the Torah. Pomegranates contain many seeds, which have long been associated with the commandments that Jews follow, so by eating them they remind themselves to be good in the coming year. Other common foods include dates, leeks, gourds, and black-eyed peas, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud as foods to eat on New Year’s.

9. Some branches of Judaism participate in the ritual of Tashlikh, or "casting off."

The ritual involves standing near water, like a river, and reciting prayers. Then participants symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs or stones into the water. This is supposedly derived from the Biblical passage “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), although most Jewish sources trace it back to 15th century Germany. In New York City, large groups gather on the Brooklyn Bridge, while in Israel—where there is much less open water—people might use something as small as a fish pond.

10. There are various traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah.

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L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayvu is Hebrew for “May you be inscribed for a good year,” referring to that person’s name being put in the Book of Life. This is often shortened to Shana Tova, which just means “Good Year.” This isn’t to be confused with wishing each other a “Happy New Year.” Happy implies a level of superficiality, while the Jewish wish for a good year hopes the person will achieve their purpose.

11. The Havdalah prayer is performed as night falls on the second and last day of Rosh Hashanah.

It involves saying blessings over a full cup of kosher wine or grape juice, although other drinks can be used in a pinch. After this, Rosh Hashanah is over.

This story has been updated for 2020.