Q&A: The origin of “Nike”, “Adidas”, “Asics”

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, just shoe it…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about shoes?

A: Do you mean whether it should be “shoo-in” or “shoe-in” when describing a sure thing? Because we’ve done that one before – here it is.

Q: No, I was looking at my shoes the other day…

A: … Sole searching?

Q: Haha, yeah, something like that. Anyway, it got me wondering about where the names of some big shoe brands came from. “Nike” for starters.

A: Well, that brand actually started off named “Blue Ribbon Sports” – but was famously advised to go for something shorter, preferably four letters. They chose the Greek goddess of victory – “Nike”

Q: They just did it.

A: They sure did. By the way, while it makes no difference in written form, the Greeks pronounce it “nee-kay” – whereas the brand has gone more with “nigh-kee” or even the monosyllabic “nike”.

Q: What about “Adidas”?

A: This one is an abbreviation.

Q: Oh yes – an initialism made from  “All Day I Dream About Sport”!

A: Actually, no. While that has become a popular origin story (along with other variations that replace different “S” words!), the brand’s name had a more obvious lineage. It was an abbreviation of the original shoemaker’s name – Adolf “Adi” Dassler, who started making shoes back in the 1920s.

Q: I can see why he wanted to go by “Adi”.

A: Quite. Anyway, Adi’s shoes were famously worn by gold-medal-winning African-American athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

Q: Ahhh yes, the guy who put a real spanner in the Nazis’ idea that fair-skinned, blue-eyed people were superior.

A: Yeah, a bit awkward. Adi actually had a brother, Rudolph (“Rudi”) who would go on to set up a rival shoe company after World War 2. 

Q: Rudidas? Never heard of it.

A: Actually, you’re close. Rudi saw what Adi did in naming Adidas, but instead of three letters from each name, he went with two – and the RUDA company was formed!

Q: Ummm… Still never heard of it.

A: Yeah, the marketing people agreed that it wasn’t very sporty sounding, so changed it swiftly to PUMA – a more athletic and marketable name.

Q: Ahhh – I HAVE heard of that one!

A: By the way, “puma” is simply the Incan word for what North Americans call a “cougar” – they’re the same animal. Other names for it are “mountain lion” and “panther” – all big cats, only differing in their colouring!

Q: What about “Reebok” – that’s named after an animal too, right?

A: That’s right. Although it started out as the very British sounding “JW Foster and Sons” in 1895. They were famous for putting their shoes on the feet of Harold Abrahams in the 1924 Paris Olympics – made famous by the film Chariots of Fire.

Q: Gosh, we ARE learning a lot today! So, the “reebok”?

A: Ah yes. So, in the 1950s, two grandsons of the original Foster formed a side company with a name they found in a dictionary that had, as the story goes, been won by one of them in a childhood sprinting race. The word they chose was an Afrikaans word for the grey rhebok – a type of antelope.

Q: Okay, can you do “ASICS” next?

A: Originally called the ONITSUKA shoe company and founded in Japan in the late 1940s, the name would eventually become ASICS in 1977. It’s an acronym of an Ancient Roman phrase “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano” – roughly meaning “a sound mind in a sound body”.

Q: That’s pretty cool. Hmmm. What about “Converse”? Did they just like to talk about shoes?

A: Haha, no it has nothing to do with conversing. This one’s pretty easy – originating in Massachusetts in 1908 and named simply after its founder.

Q: Who? Chuck Taylor?

A: Nope. Charles “Chuck” Taylor wasn’t the founder. He was a Converse salesman in the 1920s and 30s – famous for improving and making famous their “All Star” line of basketball shoes. But the Converse brand itself was named after a man named Marquis Mills Converse.

Q: Cool name. All this talk of shoes reminds me of my own grandfather – he used to work 16 hours a day in a clown shoe factory. 

A: Sounds like hard work.

Q: Yes. He told me that making those shoes was no small feat!

A: Groan. That’s enough. Go on, shoo!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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