The origins of 10 publishers' names

You need only to pick up a dictionary to delve into the origins of words, but it’s easy to forget that proper nouns - including first names and surnames, place names and tradenames - are all just words in their own right too, and as such have their own origins and histories. So with the world’s largest book fair getting underway this week in Frankfurt (which, incidentally, is literally ‘the ford of the Franks’), here are the stories and explanations behind 10 of the most famous names in publishing.

1. Random House

The word random comes from an Old French term meaning ‘run’ or ‘rush’, and originally described doing something at great speed; it’s because things done at speed are often fairly chaotic or slapdash that eventually came to mean ‘haphazard’, or ‘indiscriminate’. The founders of Random House - American publishers Bennet Cerf and Donald Klopfer - took up the name after they purchased the Modern Library publishing imprint in 1927, which was licensed to publish reprint editions of classic works of world literature. As Cerf later explained, the original plan was merely “to publish a few books on the side, at random”.

2. Penguin

To etymologists, penguin is one of the most mysterious of words, with the most likely (but by no means certain) theory claiming that it comes from the Welsh words for ‘white head’. The origins of the classic Penguin paperbacks, however, are much easier to account for: they were conceived of in 1935 by publisher Allen Lane, who was frustrated with the lack of high quality, affordable paperbacks available at train stations. The idea emerged for a new publishing imprint that could fill this gap in the market, by producing inexpensive paperbacks to be bought and sold not only in bookstores, but in newsagents, tobacconists, and other smaller retailers. Like all good business ideas, Lane wanted an appropriate and eye-catching name and logo to represent it - something, he explained, that was ‘dignified but flippant’. It was his secretary that came up with the image of a penguin, and the rest is history.

3. Pelican

The unexpected success of Lane’s Penguin paperbacks led to him establishing a non-fiction equivalent in 1937, and continuing the ornithological theme he opted to name it Pelican. A children’s non-fiction imprint, Puffin, naturally followed three years later. Etymologically, these words are just as problematic as the penguin before it: pelican might somehow be related to the Greek word for a woodpecker, pelekas, or else an axe, pelekys, while puffin might be somehow related to an old Cornish or Breton word for ‘cheek’, but neither name can really be explained with any certainty.

4. Faber and Faber

Faber and Faber began life as The Scientific Press, a publishing firm founded by the academic Sir Maurice Gwyer in the early 1900s. Its main source of income was originally a weekly magazine called The Nursing Mirror, but a zeal to expand the business into book publishing led Gwyer to join forces with fellow academic and poet Sir Geoffrey Faber, and The Scientific Press officially became Faber and Gwyer in 1925. After four years, the pair agreed to go their separate ways: Gwyer went on to become chief justice of India and vice-chancellor of Delhi University, while Faber continued the publishing business alone, under the new name Faber and Faber - despite there never being another ‘Faber’ involved.

5. Simon and Schuster

Named after its two founders, Richard L Simon and Max Schuster, Simon and Schuster was established in New York in 1924 - originally in response to a request by Simon’s mother. At the time, in the early 1920s, crossword puzzles were just beginning to grow in popularity, and reportedly Simon’s mother asked her son if there were a book of crosswords available for her to give to a friend as a gift. He soon discovered that there wasn’t, and so, spotting the gap in the market and sensing that crosswords were about to be the next big thing, Simon (a piano salesman by trade) teamed up with Schuster (the editor of a local car trade magazine) to found a publishing company to capitalize on the fad. It proved an immediate success.

6. Canongate

Edinburgh’s popular Canongate publishing house is named after the area of the city in which its offices are based. The Canongate district itself was founded in the 12th century by King David I of Scotland, and took its name from the gait (the road or throughway) used by the canons of nearby Holyrood Abbey.

7. The Bodley Head

The Bodley Head was originally an antiquarian book shop established in London by booksellers and publishers John (uncle of Allen) Lane and Elkin Matthews. It took its name from a bust of Sir John Bodley - namesake of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and father of Thomas Bodley who founded the Bodleian Library - which was positioned above the shop door.

8. Virago

When Virago books was founded in 1973 as a publishing house dedicated to steadfastly championing female writers, there was really only one name that could suit: that of an eternally courageous female warrior.

9. Pan

The Pan of Pan Macmillan was founded as a specialist paperback publisher in 1944, by the editor, journalist, and World War 1 flying ace Alan Bott. The company was named after the Greek god Pan, a picture of whom, playing his pan-pipes, became the company’s logo; it was designed by the artist and author of the Gormenghast book, Mervyn Peake. For his work, Peake was offered a flat fee of £10 (roughly £400 in 2015) or one farthing royalty payment on the sale of every book. On the advice of fellow author Graham Greene, who told him that paperbacks were a dying fad, Peake opted for the £10.

10. Picador

Picador was founded in 1972, but the idea of creating a paperback publishing imprint specialising in intelligent, international writing aimed a young people emerged among the staff at Pan Macmillan the previous year. A number of names for the enterprise were originally mooted, but none seemed appropriate; in desperation, chief reader Caroline Lasselle was given a 5pm deadline to come up with a name combining the imprint’s drive and its international appeal. She chose picador—a mounted bullfighter armed with a lance.

Jones is a language blogger and author of Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities (Elliott & Thompson).