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.