Pepsi, Gibraltar, and other names in the news

From soda ads to ancient military strongholds, this week featured many newsworthy names.  Let’s have a look at a few—and, as always, their origins.

The Rock of Gibraltar (Pixabay)


Soda giant Pepsi pulled a controversial ad shortly after its much-decried and much-derided debut this week. In it, model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner united diverse protestors and riot police when she hands an officer a can of Pepsi.

Pepsi began as Brad’s Drink in 1893, the fizzy brainchild of Caleb Bradham, who concocted it for his North Carolina pharmacy and drugstore. By 1898, Bradham rebranded his beverage as Pepsi-Cola, first filing a trademark in 1902. The Pepsi in Pepsi-Cola, as far as we know, was inspired by pepsin, the digestive enzyme. Early on, Bradham touted how Pepsi-Cola aided digestion, though it’s not clear if he actually included pepsin as an ingredient.

The term pepsin was coined by German scientist Theodor Schwann as early as 1836. It comes from the Ancient Greek pépsis (πέψις), which also shows up in the older words peptic and dyspepsia—and, through the twists and turns of Indo-European language development, the word pumpkin.

The pep– in Pepsi also puns on the pep the beverage boasted it would put in your step. Bradham’s original recipe, though, used no cola nuts, harvested for their caffeine, but, brand-wise, he wanted to keep up with his competitor: Coca-Cola. Cola, attested in 1795, derives from a West African name for the tree (kola, kolo) imported into the Americas.


Another brand that turned heads this week was Oath—or Oath:, properly, the bumblingly rolled-out name for the Verizon-acquired Yahoo and AOL merger. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said Oath took inspiration from an aspirational word it rhymes with: growth.

Naming expert and language writer Nancy Friedman, over at her excellent blog, Fritinancy, offers a keen take on this unusual branding effort, including a look at the etymology of oath. Oath is old—Beowulf old. Its meaning today is largely unchanged from its Old English parent, áþ, a word with widespread Germanic and Celtic roots, all of obscure origin. The profane side of oath emerges in Middle English, which some branding professionals surely made good use after seeing Oath.

Tar Heels

The University of North Carolina Tar Heels bested the Gonzaga Bulldogs to win this year’s NCAA men’s basketball championship. Their mascot is a ram, but what is a Tar Heel?

Tar Heel has been nicknaming North Carolinians since at least the Civil War, the earliest record found as a sobriquet for soldiers in an 1862 entry of the war diary of Confederate army Second Lieutenant William B. A. Lowrance: “I know now what is meant by the Piney Woods of North Carolina and the idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called ‘Tar Heels.’”

Tar—along with pitch, turpentine, and their oily or resinous kin, derived from the state’s once-abundant pine forests—was a major product of North Carolina in its history, used especially for shipbuilding. The word tar, like oath, dates back to the early days of the language, from the Old English teru, which is related to the word tree, from the which the substance can be obtained.

As for the heel part of tar heel? It’s unclear, but North Carolinians tell many colorful anecdotes about how its soldiers “stuck to” fights like tar on heels.


After Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Brexit last week, the UK spatted with Spain and the EU over the sovereignty of Gibraltar, a British territory famed for its massive, Atlantic-Mediterranean/Europe-Northern Africa straddling rock since the early 1700s. 

And a thousand years before that, Gibraltar was claimed by the Tariq ibn-Ziyad, a general of the extensive Umayyad Caliphate who sieged the Iberian peninsula in 710-11. Gibraltar remembers his name: Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق), the “Mountain of Tariq.” Over time in Spanish, the Arabic Jabal Ṭāriq lost some unaccented syllables and smushed some sounds together, eventually yielding Gibraltar.

m ∫ r ∫


2 thoughts on “Pepsi, Gibraltar, and other names in the news

  1. The American English word: “javelina” (“peccary”) is borrowed from Mexican Spanish: “jabalina” has its origin in Spanish: “jabalí” (“wild boar”) which ultimately comes from Arabic: خِنْزِير جَبَلِيّ (ḵinzīr jabaliyy) “mountain pig”. Arabic جَبَل (jabal) “mountain” being the same element in the Arabic name for “Gibraltar” – Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق)


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