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, Diamler 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.
Today's macho names are turbocharged. They're as sleek and dangerous as a bomber jet, and they're not shy about telling you so. Boys' names that sound big (Maxx), fast (Blaze), powerful (Zeus), and deadly (Cannon) are soaring.
But suppose you want a name that's tough and manly, but titanium-free? A name than summons up an image of formidable real-life men, rather than weapons or avatars?
Let me take you back to an age of macho past. The names below are generations past their heyday. They won't be mistaken for superheroes, and they may not offer the same schoolyard cool as a name like Stryker or Blade. On the plus side, though, the macho vision they embody is achievable. They hold out a promise of toughness and manliness within human proportions.
The new #1 names in England and Wales are Amelia for girls, and Oliver for boys. The biggest stories, though, aren't found at the top of the charts. The fastest-rising names of the year show us where the action is. They capture the hottest trends, the freshest sounds, and above all the the mindset of our times — for better and worse. That time-capsule aspect of names is on view this year, as England's hottest rising name of 2013 is:
Previously obscure in England, the name Reeva leapt onto the top 1,000 list after Reeva Steenkamp, a South African model, was shot and killed by her Olympic sprinter boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. (Mr. Pistorius claims that he believed he was shooting at a home intruder, and that Ms. Steenkamp's death was a tragic accident. His trial recently concluded, and he awaits a verdict.)
This is not an isolated name trend. When the death of an attractive young woman or girl becomes a media phenomenon, her name reliably soars in popularity. We've seen this after the death or disappearance of of Americans such as Laci Peterson, Nicole Brown Simpson, Caylee Anthony, and Natalee Holloway. The rise of Reeva in the U.K. shows the phenomenon is not unique to our shores.
The victim name phenomenon is different from typical celebrity-inspired naming. No matter how much exposure celebrities get, their names only catch on if they have the fresh sound and style parents are looking for. My usual refrain: "It's not about the fame, it's about the name." Not with victim names. They're relatively immune to fashion, and can even reverse a fading name's downward trend.
We seem to name after women like Reeva Steenkamp the way we'd name after a personal friend: as an act of affection and remembrance. That says something about the intense media focus on these unfortunate women, and something about the way we consume it. It's particularly striking in an age when we've stopped naming babies after leaders and heroes.
This particular victim name trend, Reeva, comes with a unique twist. The name of the killer also soared. The boy's name Oscar leapt all the way from #62 in England the previous year to #7 today.
The complete fastest-rising names in England:
11. Khaleesi (the amazing Game of Thrones name)