Pop Culture

These fun facts about how 5 well-known things got their names are blowing people's minds

Did you know that the name "Idaho" was made up by a con artist who tried to pass it off as a Native American word?

From how Idaho got its name to why we capitalize "B" in "dB," here are some fascinating factoids.

The "I was today years old when I learned" meme might be a bit overdone at this point, but thanks to the random factoids people share on the internet, it's a near-daily reality. Rarely do we go an entire day without seeing some surprising, delightful or head-scratching piece of info cross our feeds.

Let's take the etymology of words, for example. Did you know that the word "jumbo" originated from an exceptionally large elephant named "Jumbo," and not the other way around? Or that the word "muscle" comes from the Latin musculus, meaning "little mouse," because the Romans thought that muscles moving looked like mice running under the skin?

It's fun to see where things come from, but sometimes we can be surprised by an origin that we thought for sure couldn't be right, but actually is. For instance:

Michelin star ratings for fancy restaurants come from the Michelin tire company.

Yes, really. The assumption many of us have been operating under is that Michelin the restaurant review guide must have been founded by some hoity toity French restaurant critic and not the tire company with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man mascot. Yet here we are, being all wrong.

They don't even try to hide it, so it's surprising that many of us don't know this. The logo and the Michelin man are right there at the top of the Michelin guide website, and the story of how the guide came about is shared on the About Us page:

"It all started in Clermont-Ferrand in central France in 1889, when brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin founded their eponymous tire company, fuelled by a grand vision for the French automobile industry at a time when there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the country. In order to help motorists develop their trips - thereby boosting car sales and in turn, tyre purchases - the Michelin brothers produced a small guide filled with handy information for travellers, such as maps, information on how to change a tyre, where to fill up on petrol, and wonderfully - for the traveller in search of respite from the adventures of the day - a listing of places to eat or take shelter for the night."

The Michelins gave away the guide for free until one of them saw a tire shop using them to prop up a workbench. They decided to demonstrate the value of the guide by charging money for it. They also started sending mystery diners to review restaurants anonymously, and over the next hundred years they'd hone the star rating system that restaurants now aspire to impress with.

The "Guinness" of The Guinness Book of World Records is actually the same Guinness as the beer company.

Similar story here—who knew this was the same Guinness? Only this time, the offshoot was founded not by Guinness himself but by British engineer and industrialist Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Brewery. He conceived of the idea in the early 1950s to satisfy bar patrons who asked trivia questions.

The impetus was Beaver himself getting into an argument over what was the fastest game bird in Europe during a shooting match. But he couldn't find the answer in any reference books. So he decided to create a book with the help of a couple of sports journalists, and the Guinness Book of World Records was born.

The first book was 190 pages and had 4,000 entries. As of 2022, more than 60,000 Guinness world records had been catalogued in the world records database.

The reason the "B" in dB, the abbreviation for "decibel," is capitalized is because it's named after Alexander Graham Bell.

This is one that came out of left field for a lot of folks. How many years did we spend in school without learning this simple fact?

Remember Hansen's Natural soda? It morphed into Monster.

If you were a child of the 80s or 90s, and especially if you had parents who were anti-Big Soda or anti-high fructose corn syrup, you probably drank your fair share of Hansen's Natural soda.

If you weren't paying close attention, you may not know that in 2012, Hansen's Natural Corporation officially changed its name…to Monster Beverage Corporation. That's right, as in Monster energy drinks. Apparently, they found that energy drinks had become their bread and butter, so they leaned into it full force.

Talk about a wild pendulum swing of a rebrand.

"Idaho" was made up by as sketchy congressional delegate who tried to pass it off as a Native American word

There are some unclear spots in the story, but the gist is that back in 1860, the Western territory of that would become Colorado was soon to become a state and needed a name. Congress wanted the state to have a Native American name and someone suggested Idaho, a name allegedly coined by congressional delegate George M. Willing, who claimed it was a Native American word from the Shoshone that meant "Gem of the Mountains." It wasn't and it didn't. He totally made it up.

Congress approved "Idaho" as the name for Colorado at first, but then took it back after they found out it wasn't actually a Native American name. (Did they then choose a Native American name? No, they went with the Spanish name of Colorado.)

In the meantime, someone had named a steamboat in the Pacific Northwest "Idaho," and then some mines got named after the steamboat, and after a few years and several "named after" iterations, people forgot that Idaho was a fake, made-up word, and Congress gave the state its name.

And now, Idaho is not only a state but the last name of a fan-favorite character in one of the best loved sci-fi stories of all time that takes place 10,000 years into the future. A conman's word forever immortalized. God bless America.

When Cherie Buckner-Webb was 5 or 6 years old, someone burned a cross in the front yard of her Boise home.

Buckner-Webb and her family had every reason to leave the neighborhood, or even Idaho, after that. Instead, her mother turned an act of bigotry into a powerful teachable moment.

"My father would've liked to taken it and hidden it away," Buckner-Webb says, "and my mom was saying 'Put it on the front porch. We've been living here a year in this neighborhood, and they are late.'"

Boise in the spring. Photo by iStock.

Buckner-Webb is a black face in a white space. And like her mother before her, she's not going anywhere.

She is a fifth-generation black Idahoan, and her family has deep roots in the state. One of her great-grandfathers even founded and built the first black church in the Boise area. Her parents were active in the community, with the NAACP chapter and other local initiatives.

But numbers don't lie: less than 1% of Idaho residents — about 13,250 people — identify as black or African-American, and Buckner-Webb recalls a childhood tinted with the hypervisibility that comes with being the only black face in the group.

"I was very well-behaved and probably because there was a small number of us," she says. "I tell the same thing to my children, 'Nobody will notice anybody that you're with, but they'll notice the one black kid in the group.'"

Image via iStock.

Buckner-Webb credits her mother for telling her the honest truth about the "the way things were."

"It was really important to her that her children had an awareness and understanding of what it is to be black and walk in the world." Buckner-Webb says. "I realized quickly that our way of being was different and unique to the kids I went to school with."

She made connections and built a lot of her community at church.

"It seemed like almost everybody black in Idaho, whether it was for the National Guard or whatever, we all met up [in church]," she says. "It had a lot to do with religion, but it had a lot to do with a place you saw people who look like you, a gathering place."

Image by iStock.

Across the country, Curtiss Reed is working on building community and gathering places for all Vermonters, but especially people of color.

Reed was living in St. Louis but working on a consulting project in Washington, D.C., when a friend invited him up to Vermont for a ski weekend in 1978.

"I found it picture postcard perfect," he says. "And six months later, I moved — relocated to Vermont."

Reed lived and worked in the Green Mountain State for five years, then spent nearly two decades traveling and working abroad. He lived and worked in France, Tunisia, Burundi, and more. But when it was time to return to the states in 2001, there was only one place Reed wanted to be: Vermont.

Vermont in the fall. Photo by iStock.

"When I was overseas, I voted absentee ballot, got the newspapers three or four weeks after the fact, paid my taxes, etc. This has always been home," he says.

But much like in Idaho, Vermont's black population is staggeringly small. There are approximately 8,100 black people (1.3% of the population) in the entire state. That's about .84 of a black person per square mile. To put it in perspective, there are approximately 52 black people per square mile in Florida. States like Vermont are blinding whiteness, and black people in these regions are truly few and far between.

Today, Reed lives in Brattleboro and is executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

"We are the organization people turn to when they want to address issues of equity in the public sphere," he says. Recruiting employees and visitors of color is more than a "nice-to-have." For Vermont, it's now or never.

The state's low birth rate and large percentage of people over 65 (17.6%) means Vermont is in desperate need of more people. Not just skilled workers to replenish the work force, but visitors to keep the state's thriving outdoor tourism industry afloat.

"Vermont's future is inextricably tied to it's ability for the state to be an attractive destination for folks of color," Reed says.

It's a snowy day in Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Jordan Silverman/Getty Images.

To build community and foster new relationships, both Buckner-Webb and Reed have tapped into local black history.

Buckner-Webb is on the board of the Idaho Black History Museum. Housed in the church founded by her great-grandfather, the building was lifted off its foundation and moved to a local park. Since 1995, guests have enjoyed exhibits, guest lectures, musical performances, and community programs.

"It's possibly the first black history museum in the Pacific Northwest," she says.

Reed partnered with the Department of Tourism to develop the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail. The route takes visitors of all ages to 20 different museums and cultural and historic sites throughout the state. The governor of Vermont even named February 2017 Vermont African-American Heritage Trail Month. After all, "Black history is Vermont history," Reed says.

A marker outside the Old Constitution House, one of many historic sites on the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail. Photo by Doug Kerr/Flickr.

For Buckner-Webb and Reed, their love for their state is more than hometown pride — it's a calling.

In 2010, after being asked off and on for more than 25 years, Buckner-Webb decided to run for state office. She didn't know if she'd have the patience to make it happen, but a friend ultimately convinced her.

"[She told me] you have some work to do. One woman can make a difference," Buckner-Webb recalls.

She filed the next day.

Buckner-Webb was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives that year and to the State Senate in 2012, 2014, and 2016. A Democrat in a conservative stronghold, she is used to standing up to adversity. And she's had decades of practice.

The Idaho Capitol. Photo by iStock.

"I'm a super-minority in a super-minority party in Idaho, so I have a lot of experience that way," she says.

Buckner-Webb is the first and only black person to be elected to the state legislature in Idaho, and she currently serves as assistant minority leader. While Buckner-Webb is used to sticking out, she'd rather have some company in the state house.

"One of my legacies I hope to leave is that there will be many more after me — or right now would be fine. With me, with me," she says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Reed travels almost every day across Vermont, reaching out to employers, community leaders, and more about the importance of recruiting, hiring, and building community for people of color.

From signal boosting resources and personal stories and planning an annual conference for leaders of color and executive and legislative leadership, to talking with police departments and local municipalities about implicit bias, Reed's work is never done.

"We spend a considerable amount of time building community by example," he says.

Being a black face in a white space is a universally specific experience that's neither all good nor bad.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town less than three hours from Chicago and 78% white. Since college, I've lived in Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, and now Portland, Oregon. In every stop, save for my brief stint in Jacksonville, Florida, I felt out of place as a black woman. I was both hypervisible and invisible simultaneously. I'd go from being followed around a department store to being brushed off and ignored by waitstaff at dinner.

Image by iStock.

That notion of hypervisibility and invisibility are themes I noticed in both Buckner-Webb's and Reed's experiences. But like them, I also have a sense of pride and passion for the place I grew up. Madison is, for better or worse, my hometown.

For black Americans, home is not limited to certain zip codes, cities, states, or regions of the country. Though black people in majority white spaces face the additional challenge of lacking critical mass, our lived experiences aren't any less valid or "black" than anyone else's. (Did you hear that, Donald Trump?)

In fact, both Reed and Buckner-Webb said their smaller communities have their own advantages.

"My husband is from Atlanta, Georgia, and I think the opportunities to succeed might be a little bit easier [here]," Buckner-Webb says. "Probably because there's not a critical mass here to scare people. People are not comfortable with people that don't look like them, you know what I mean? It is a relatively welcoming place. There are opportunities to make your way here."

Boise in the fall. Photo by iStock.

For Reed, Vermont's small towns foster community and collaboration in a way other regions simply can't.

"We have 251 towns in the state. They're small. On a day like today — it looks like we have about two feet of snow — you need your neighbor to help shovel, or plow, or move your car out of a ditch. I think in that case, the weather, geography, living in smaller communities really focuses people on what it means to be neighborly."

Horses dine in Putney, Vermont. Photo by iStock.

Black people helped lay the foundation for this country, and today, we are everywhere.

Whether home is Boise, Brattleboro, Portland, Chicago, or Atlanta, black people are building communities, fostering relationships, and making a difference from coast to coast. Whether invisible or hypervisible, we are here. And we will continue to live, love, and contribute to our communities for generations to come.