Friday, October 12, 2012

Naughts and Zeds: Cotton-Stickin' Problem

Naughts and Zeds is an ongoing series of posts on the differences between language, culture, and everyday items in America and in Britain. For a list of previous posts, go here.

We finally ran out of the supply of Q-Tips that we brought from America, so I had to go shopping around for them in the local UK stores. Funnily enough, no product called "Q-Tips" was available. It's a brand name, so I started looking for cotton swabs. No swabs in the stores either! I finally came across what I wanted in a local supermarket.

Now I have to admit, the term "swabs" always makes me think of sailors, or at least of Popeye. You know how they swab the deck all the time. To me, "cotton buds" sounds like a plant that hasn't really bloomed yet. "Q-Tips" doesn't make much sense as a name either. I can see how in an abstract way the end might look like a sloppily-written q or Q, but to find out the real story, I started scouring their web site. Here's what I found:
Upon observing his wife applying wads of cotton to toothpicks, Leo Gerstenzang, the original founder of the Q-tips®  Company, conceived the idea of manufacturing a ready-to-use cotton swab. He founded the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Co., a firm which marketed baby care accessories.
The product was originally called Baby Gays and in 1926, the labels were changed to read Q-tips®  Baby Gays. Later, the name Baby Gays was discarded and Q-tips®  became the identifying mark for cotton swabs. The “Q” in Q-tips®  stands for quality and the word “tips” describes the cotton swab at the end of the stick.
A "Q" for quality makes sense even if it is not immediately obvious. This information is probably more than anyone needs to know about cotton swabs/buds, but it may come in handy at a cocktail party.

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