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The Straight Dope

You probably answered this one years ago, but in 1973, I was in junior high. Fig Newton Cookies... who the heck was Newton?

-- William Killinger, via the Internet

Much as I like Fig Newtons and the other fine products of the Nabisco company, you can appreciate that this not the kind of fact I keep stored in my frontal lobes. Unfortunately, when one archives one's non-mission-critical information on Zip disks, one also faces the prospect that Little Ed will use them to prop up the hind leg of the UNIVAC. So I was obliged to reinvestigate. This meant dealing with corporate America, always a chastening experience. I tell you, arguing with the theoretical physicists is starting not to look so bad.

First, I visited the Website run by Nabisco, the maker of Fig Newtons (, and found the following: "There are two theories as to the origin of the Fig Newtons name. One familiar tale says the gentleman who invented the machinery that makes Fig Newtons Cookies was so proud of his work that he named the cookies after the great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton. The second theory holds that the cookies took their name from the Massachusetts town of Newton, near the home of Kennedy Biscuit Works (forerunner to Nabisco)."

My basic reaction to the Isaac Newton hypothesis was: Man, these guys have got to lay off the Jolt Cola. The Newton, Massachusetts, alternative, on the other hand, seemed just nutty enough to be true. I decided to see if I could scare up somebody at Nabisco who had a clue.

By and by I reached John Barrows, senior manager for marketing communications. John was my kind of guy. "There is no truth at all to the Isaac Newton theory," he wrote. Fig Newtons had been introduced in 1891 by the Kennedy Biscuit Works, one of a number of regional bakeries that merged in 1898 to form the National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco. "The Kennedy Biscuit [Works] named all their products after surrounding communities, including cookies and crackers called Shrewsbury, Harvard, Beacon Hill, and so on. There is no doubt (in our minds) whatsoever that the Fig Newton is named for Newton, Massachusetts." Studying my map of the commonwealth, all I can say is, thank God that Kennedy Biscuit wasn't near Belchertown.

I decided to pick John's brain about other Nabisco cookie names before his bosses decided it was time for another round of corporate downsizing. Not to diss John, but this revealed how thin the veneer of knowledge is at even our largest corporations:

*Lorna Doones. "No record exists as to the exact motivation behind the selection of that name, but in those days [the product was introduced in 1912] shortbread biscuits were considered a product of Scottish heritage, and the Lorna Doone character was symbolic of Scotland." An obvious problem with this theory is that Lorna Doone, the 1869 novel by R.D. Blackmore to which John refers, was set in southwest England, not Scotland. One suspects that somebody along the line was reading the Cliffs Notes.

*Oreos. "We don't know much about the origins of Oreo because it was one of three new products all launched at the same time in 1912," John told us. (Obviously 1912 was a banner year for cookie introductions. My assistant Jane insists I point out that it was also the year the Titanic sank! There must be a connection! Whatever you say, Jane. Here, have some Spam.) John continued: "The company thought the other two were going to be the big winners, and little was written about Oreo."

For the record the main theories are: (1) Oreo was euphonious and easy to pronounce. (2) Oreo was inspired by the French word for gold, or, a color used on early package designs. (3) The name comes from the Greek word for mountain, oreo, and was chosen because the first test cookies were hill-shaped. (4) An O-RE-O consists of c-RE-am between two O-shaped wafers. Terrific, eh? Think what they could have come up with if they'd had two cases of Ripple.

So listen up, marketing geniuses. Sure, chances are that hot new product you're about to name will end up in a landfill six months from now. But on the off chance it doesn't, keep notes.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at [email protected]; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

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Cecil Adams

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