When much-reviled security firm Blackwater changed its name to Xe last week, it wasn’t just cleverly attempting to squash criticism by tossing out a name nobody would know how to pronounce. (Although that idea was probably a foreseen fringe benefit of the switch.) It was just joining in on a long tradition of corporations, places, and people opting to pick up a catchier, less tainted, or more unique name. Here are nine other famous entities that changed their names; you might not even recognize them by their original monikers.
In 1996, Stanford computer science grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page started working on a new web crawling search engine. Since the engine used backlinks to gauge how important a site was, the enterprising pair called their creation “BackRub.” By 1997 they decided this name wasn’t so hot and brainstormed some new ideas before eventually settling on “Google.”
“BackRub” sounds positively inspired compared to this behemoth of a title. When David Filo and Jerry Yang started a guide to Internet content in 1994, they christened it “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Like Page and Brin, they quickly realized they might need a name that took less than three minutes to say, so they switched to a word they liked from the dictionary – one that described someone who was “rude, unsophisticated, and uncouth.” And that’s how Yahoo! was born.
If ever anyone had good cause to change his name, it’s Jeff Gillooly. While he was married to former figure skater Tonya Harding, Gillooly became a despised national figure for helping orchestrate the knee whacking of Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan. To make things worse, he apparently sold a sex tape of one of his romps with Harding to a tabloid TV show. After spending six months in prison on racketeering charges, Gillooly returned home to Oregon, but picked up a new name, “Jeff Stone.”
New name or not, he was still the same old Jeff Gillooly. According to a 2008 Newsweek report, Stone has been briefly married, divorced, twice arrested for domestic violence (although the charges were dropped), owned a tanning salon, sold used cars, and dated a stripper. Sort of makes Tonya’s boxing career sound respectable.
In 1893, pharmacist Caleb Bradham created a new cola formula at his New Bern, North Carolina, business. Customers loved the sweet, fizzy libation, but the name “Brad’s Drink” didn’t really do much for them. After five years, Bradham decided maybe it was time to come up with a better brand name for his drink, so he started calling it Pepsi Cola.
In 1995, millions of Indians went to sleep in Bombay and woke up in Mumbai. How did that happen? Since India achieved independence from British rule in 1947, various place names around the country have been changed to reflect Indian heritage rather than British colonial influences. When the right-wing Shiv Sena party romped in India’s 1995 elections, one of its early acts was changing Bombay’s name to Mumbai in honor of the city’s patron Hindu goddess, Mumbadevi.
Mumbai’s hardly alone in getting renamed, though. In 2001 Calcutta became Kolkata, while Madras became Chennai in 1996.
Jones showed a certain flair for showmanship and songwriting in the early 1960s, but he was unfortunately named. Pop music already had a Davy Jones, the diminutive member of The Monkees. To spare himself any career-killing confusion, David Jones decided to adopt a stage name in 1965. He settled on the last name Bowie in part due to his fascination with Alamo-defending patriot Jim Bowie and his namesake knife. Jones wasn’t instantly successful after he became David Bowie, but the Thin White Duke eventually rode his new name to stardom.
In 1989, accounting giant Arthur Andersen spun off its consulting division into its own linked business that quickly grew into a juggernaut. When Andersen Consulting was raking in over $9 billion a year by the end of the 1990s, the consultancy no longer had much of a desire to stick with the accounting firm that incubated it. Following a rather acrimonious split in 2000, Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture.
Splitting up and changing names proved to be a stroke of luck for Accenture. Barely a year after the two companies parted ways, Arthur Andersen’s name became inextricably linked to Enron-type accounting shenanigans, and by the end of 2002, the company’s business was for all intents and purposes dead. Accenture, on the other hand, didn’t suffer from negative associations with its document-shredding former brethren and remains on the Fortune Global 500.
Cornwell enjoyed long, successful careers in the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, and he started writing novels while he was with MI5. As it turned out, the novels were quite good, but he couldn’t publish them under his own name due to British foreign office rules. Cornwell adopted the pseudonym John le Carre so he could stay in the good graces of his bosses, but it wouldn’t matter for long. After achieving major commercial success and critical acclaim for his dazzling novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carre quit his day job in 1964 to focus on writing full-time. The decision paid off when le Carre became one of the most successful thriller writers of his generation.
In 1963, an ambitious young runner named Phil Knight met with the Japanese running shoe company Onitsuka about distributing their sneakers in the U.S. The Japanese makers of Tiger running shoes decided to give Knight a shot, but they needed to know the name of Knight’s company. He responded that he was running Blue Ribbon Sports, and he soon began selling Tigers out of his car at track meets around the U.S. By 1971, though, his business had grown to the point where Knight was making his own shoes. He decided to name the shoes and the business after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike.
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