And I used to be lots funnier.

Dear Word Detective: My friend drives a Mazda car. She thinks that the word “mazda” has some significant meaning, possibly in ancient Persian. Can you give me any information? –Peter Kerr.

Drat. I was all set to cast light-hearted doubt on your friend’s sanity when a little voice in my head suggested that I check a book called From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Inasmuch as I actually wrote this book my very own self, you’d think I’d remember what it contains, but you’d be wrong. The truth about many writers is that once the research is done and the piece is written and published, we wipe the old memory slate clean to make room for shopping lists and dental appointments. Occasionally this “yesterday’s gone” approach proves awkward (as it almost just did), but the bright side is that I can amuse myself for hours reading things I wrote just a few months ago.

In any case, your friend is correct. The Mazda car, produced by the Mazda Motor Company of Japan, takes its name from Ahura Mazda, the central deity of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest monotheistic religions, is considered to have been a strong influence on the Abrahamic religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam), and was founded by the Persian philosopher Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra. Evidently Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced Jujiro Matsuda, the founder of Mazda Motor Company. Matsuda, son of a fisherman, founded the company in 1920 under the name Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd., and, indeed, produced cork flooring until switching to motor vehicles in 1931. Oddly enough, the company’s name formally became Mazda Motor Company only in 1984, but every vehicle they have produced, including their 1931 Mazdago three-wheel pickup truck, has carried some variant of the “Mazda” name.

There is a theory that Jujiro Matsuda picked the name “Mazda” not only from an apparent respect for Zoroastrianism but also because it bore a strong phonetic resemblance to his own last name. If that’s true, Mazda is in good company — many automobile brands are based on personal names. The Oldsmobile, for instance, was named for Ransom E. Olds, a pioneer automobile engineer who established the first car company in Detroit, the Olds Motor Company, in 1890. Rolls-Royce was founded by Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce in 1906, and Dodge honors John and Horace Dodge, brothers who started out making bicycles and eventually worked up to manufacturing cars. Honda and Toyota both reflect the names of their founders, although in the latter case “Toyota” was thought to have a “better sound” than Sakichi Toyoda’s last name. And while the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1656-1750) never got around to building a car, his name is immortalized on those tacky hood ornaments today because he founded the city of Detroit.

3 comments on this post.
  1. jeanG:

    I’ve read an article that the Japanese worships Mazda, maker of high-quality Mazda Air Filter. Out of curiosity, I’ve done some research and found out about the origin of its name. I’ve found it through Wikipedia. But the information is not complete and I’ve found out a lot trough this blog.

  2. donkaspersen:

    Actually, the reason for the use of Mazda may be far more venal. In the early part of the last century the Edison Electric Co – later GE, I believe – sold high quality table, floor and possibly swag lamps under the brand name Mazda. A car company in Japan could not name itself Rolls Royce or Pierce Arrow or Cadillac to give it an aura of quality, but the Mazda lamps were known worldwide. So why not take a quality brand from a company that was not making cars and use it, especially if it were vaguely like your own last name?

  3. sisterluke2:

    I can support donkapersen’s answer. In the the UK in the 1950s/60s, I recall an advert which claimed that ‘Mazda lamps glow brighter, longer – Always ask for Mazda’. This may be an oblique reference to its religious, light-shedding origins.

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