The Surprising Story Behind One of the World's Top Brand Names

Sep 4th 2014

Brand name or baby name?

That's the obvious question about Mercedes, a traditional Spanish religous name that's also one of the world's best-known luxury brands. It turns out, though, that the question only scratches the surface of this name's complex history. Please join me for a tale of language and literature, religion and commerce; the tale of a single name.

The Spanish word mercedes means boons or favors. (Think of the English cognate "mercy" as a heavenly boon.) Mercedes became a girl's name in Spanish via a title of the Virgin Mary: Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, or "Our Lady of Divine Favors."

It's a big leap from pious gratitude in Spain to luxury automobiles in Germany. That part of the story begins in the late 1800s in Stuttgart, Germany, home of the Daimler Motors Corporation. A small but innovative engine company, Daimler had just begun to produce automobiles. In 1896, a businessman named Emil Jellinek visited the company and ordered one of their new Phoenix motorcars.

Jellinek had grown up in Vienna, the son of a prominent Czech-Austrian rabbi. He was a restless and indifferent scholar, and was sent abroad to make his fortune. This he did admirably, establishing himself as both a diplomat and entrepreneur. By the 1890s he was a successful businessman living on the French Riviera, and a passionate enthusiast of the new sport of auto racing.

For Daimler Motors, Emil Jellinek became a combination of sales partner, wealthy patron, and client from hell. He admired Daimler's engineering enough to become the company's overseas distributor, but also badgered the company about their cars' shortcomings.

Ultimately, Jellinek offered Daimler a huge sum if they would deliver a new sports car designed to his long list of personal specifications. These included a longer wheelbase, lighter engine, lower center of gravity, and electric ignition. Jellinek also decreed that the new automobile should be named for his daughter, Mercédès, who was born in Baden, Austria in 1884. He felt that her name brought good luck and he applied it to many of his ventures, even using it as his own pseudonym when he entered races.

In a sobering example for designers everywhere, this pushy client was right. Very right. The Daimler Mercedes 35 HP, as imagined by Jellinek, stunned the racing world and revolutionized the industry. It is often referred to as the first modern automobile. The car was so acclaimed that Daimler quickly adopted the Mercedes brand name for all of their automobiles.

In the wake of this success, Jellinek changed his own surname to Jellinek-Mercedes, reportedly saying "This is probably the first time that a father has taken his daughter's name.""

That's the oft-told tale of the origin of the Mercedes brand name. It suffices from an automotive history perspective, but when it comes to names, we need to go deeper. Why "Mercedes"? How did an Austrian Jewish girl get a Spanish Catholic name to begin with?

This is my own speculation, but I believe the written accents on the name Mercédès Jellinek point to the answer. Those accents are neither German nor Spanish, but French.

French novelist Alexandre Dumas gave the name Mercédès to an exotic Spanish beauty in his adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The accents served to clarify the foreign name's pronunciation for his French readers. (Before the novel's publication, the name Mercédès was not used in France.) The Count of Monte Cristo was spectacularly popular for many years throughout Europe, and especially in France where Emil Jellinek lived on and off starting in his teens. And in pitching the name Mercedes to Daimler, Jellinek described it as "exotic and attractive" — much like the book character.

I think it's a fair conjecture that he took the name, complete with its French accents, from the Dumas novel. That would make the emblem of German engineering a product of French literature, with Spanish Catholic origins, via an Austrian Jew. Nobody said names were simple.

Comments

1
By PJ
September 5, 2014 9:33 AM

Laura, I love that you've shed some new light on a naming mystery. I've heard the story about the car being named after the girl but never in such detail and with the literary reference as well. 

I went to high school with a girl named Mercedes but she exclusively went by Sadie. 

And now I think the name is more often given for its luxury conotations than its pious ones. 

2
September 6, 2014 10:14 PM

My daughter has a Dominican friend who was born Mercedes, but she goes by Mercy so people don't think "German luxury car" when they meet her.

3
September 7, 2014 9:53 AM

Hi! My name is Mercedes and my parents are indeed Catholics from Spain. I was delighted to hear this story in detail. I had always heard outlines of this story but never with such specific content. I also had heard incorrectly that the car executive was German, not an Austrian Jew. Pretty cool. The one thing I had heard about my name's origin is that he was married to a Spanish woman and that was why they named their daughter Mercedes. By the way I read the Count of Monte Cristo because someone told me there was a character in it with my name and poor Mercedes spends the novel waiting for the Count. He was a much more exciting character--the one with all the adventures! I opted to be more like HIM! I usually go by Mercedes, but sometimes my friends and family call me Merc. Cheers!

4
September 7, 2014 5:10 PM

Thanks for this delightful story... I really enjoyed the tale of "the first father to have taken his daughter's name." 

This post might be of interest to Laura or other name lovers. It's fun to see a US data set dominated by names like Alisher and Ouedraogo:

http://iquantny.tumblr.com/post/89037291774/legs-of-steel-analyzing-nycs-pedicab-drivers

5
September 10, 2014 8:33 PM

Tiffany has the same problem. It's an old family name coming from Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. In other words, quite religious in origin.

But the mothers of most Tiffanys were no doubt thinking of the jewellers. (The fathers were probably not thinking at all.)