By Jack Sparacino
It sure is hard to compete with the great philosophers who wrote so eloquently about human thought and action. Like T. Aquinas, R. Descartes, J. Locke, and I. Kant. Oh yes, and Y. Berra. But they still left lots of room for the rest of us with less famous names to ponder somewhat lesser questions for the ages. Like these, for example, all of which involve the enduring importance of … names!
1. It’s coffee, right? Made from beans, not nuts. So how come a very well known company with a great product still names their coffee “Chock Full o’ Nuts”? They even tell you right on the can that there are no nuts inside and “it’s a long story.”
Turns out it IS a long story, so I’ll try to summarize. Chock full o’ Nuts was the brainchild of William Black, who trained in engineering at Columbia University and then opened his first nut shop in 1926 at Broadway and 43rd in Manhattan. His coffee shops were launched in 1932 with the conversion of 18 nut shops. (For a while, they actually sold cups of coffee and signature “nutted cream cheese on dark raison bread” sandwiches for a nickel.) The Depression pushed them away from nuts, considered by some as too much of a luxury for the times, but the word “nuts” hung around.
So in a nutshell, this wonderful company started out selling nuts and customers shelled out their nickels for a great product. They were (yep) nuts about it. And when you’ve got a great, recognized name, why change it? The risk of mass confusion is just too great. I think this also applies to Nutley, NJ.
1a. And while we’re on the subject of phantom nuts, what’s with “Circus Peanuts”? They’re candy. The packaging makes it clear that the company’s product contains various ingredients, but no peanuts.
1b. Blast from the past. As a final example of keeping shoppers on their toes, I recently came across an interesting reference to “peanuts” by Joseph Mitchell. He mentioned them in a vintage article titled “A Mess of Clams” (yes, a man after my own heart) that was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939. These “peanuts” were in fact undersized clams harvested from Long Island’s Great South Bay. They had to be returned to the water. Couldn’t sell them. Nuts.
1c. One more thing about nuts. Many people are allergic to nuts or peanuts (right, peanuts are actually legumes, not nuts). According to WebMD, “many unsuspecting [I think they mean unsuspected] products contain nuts.” This may include breads, ice creams, nougats, etc. But where did all these allergies come from? Jane and I were discussing this with friends over dinner recently, and none of us could recall a single kid we grew up with who had a known (to us) allergy to nuts. (Nor did we know of any kid with ADD, but maybe we just weren’t paying enough attention.)
So what’s a person to think? Some products with “nuts” in their names contain no nuts at all. Many more products whose names don’t even hint at nuts do contain them. Is there a nutty conspiracy at work here or are there more benign, “nuts and bolts” issues at play such as classic product names and contamination in manufacturing processes?
2. The walks of fame? The question here is how we as a society recognize fame and accomplishment among all the possible names and candidates. Shouldn’t there be a standard set of criteria and a panel of judges to apply these standards? Aren’t the current recognition processes across the arts and sciences a patch quilt? And should we also have standard sets of criteria for appointing the judges and for coming up with the criteria in the first place? Which should come first, the judges or the criteria the judges should be using?
3. Are we there yet? Does every imaginable condition or disorder, no matter how minor, need a name? It seems as if humans have an innate drive to name or label everything, perhaps to create a better sense of order and predictability. Take transportation, for example. We have names for the fear of flying (aviophobia), the fear of riding in a car (amaxophobia), and several names for motion sickness. Is there no limit? Well, maybe not. Take, for example, efficiency minded people who commute together and always take the shortest route to work, unless it involves driving through a mountain. What the heck to call that before we go nuts? Carpool tunnel syndrome?
Help, my head is spinning. Is there a name for this? Earth to Yogi!
By Jack Sparacino