Q&A: How did ‘Barbie’ and ‘Ken’ get their names?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have toy stories..

Q: Hi AWC, where does the name Barbie come from – as in the toy?

A: This one’s actually quite easy. The name was actually after creator Ruth Handler’s daughter Barbara. During the 1950s, she had noticed that the only dolls children could play with were styled as babies or infants. She thought an adult doll would be a good idea, and luckily her husband had co-founded toy company Mattel.

Q: Well that IS handy.

A: Yes, but it took some convincing – including doing a little copying off an existing German doll – to get Barbie on the shelves. Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair on 9 March 1959.

Q: A star is born!

A: Well, literally – with that date officially known as Barbie’s birthday. By the way, Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.

Q: And let me guess – Ken was the name of Ruth Handler’s son?

A: It was! Ken – or the doll’s full name of Kenneth Sean Carson – debuted in March 1961 initially as Barbie’s love interest, but later splitting up and becoming platonic friends. 

Q: They certainly fleshed out the world they live in!

A: They sure did – the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin by the way. And speaking of flesh, Ken’s arms didn’t actually bend for the first 16 years of his life.

Q: Poor guy. This has got me thinking about the origin of other toy names. Got any good ones?

A: Perhaps the most famous of all is the teddy bear. 

Q: Really? Surely that’s named for being all… teddy. Hmmm, yeah, actually where DOES that come from?

A: Not where but WHOM. It was actually the 26th US President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. 

Q: Oh, the one from the Great Depression and World War 2?

A: Actually no, that was the OTHER Roosevelt president – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – his fifth cousin. Theodore Roosevelt was president at the beginning of the 1900s. 

Q: So what happened?

A: Famously, in 1902 on a bear-hunting trip in Mississippi, Roosevelt refused to kill a bear that the party had captured. It made the headlines and a clever New York shop owner named Morris Michtom decided to market his stuffed bear toys as “Teddy’s bears” to cash in on the news story. 

Q: And let me guess, they sold very well. 

A: Haha, they DID. People even walked around with them in public – and Roosevelt cemented its legacy by using the “teddy bear” as his mascot when he went for reelection in 1904.

Q: Any other cute toy stories?

A: Well perhaps the most famous toy of all, LEGO, is from the Danish phrase “leg godt” – meaning “play well”. And they’ve been well played since their debut in the 1950s. 

Q: Oh, what about the slinky?

A: Well that was already an actual word – meaning to “have graceful movements”. So when slinky inventor Richard James needed a name for his toy in 1944, his wife Betty simply looked in the dictionary and chose “slinky”!

Q: Who knew that dictionaries could be so useful!

A: Ummmm, everyone?

Q: Good point. Any other more recent ones?

A: Well the big craze of the 1990s was the Japanese egg-shaped digital pets known as “tamagotchi”. The name came from a mashing together of tamago (Japanese for “egg”) and the English word watch (“uotchi” in Japanese). 

Q: I had a furby instead in the 1990s.

A: Well THOSE were an even easier naming decision – simply an adaptation of the word “furball” and actually designed to be the cuddly alternative to a tamagotchi!

Q: Okay, there are probably more, but let’s save that for part two. Right now, I have to get to my friend’s Barbie.

A: Sounds like fun – barbecues are great all year round!

Q: Oh no, you misunderstand. My friend is Margot Robbie…

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