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shameless pleading

Formica

Dear Word Detective: The word “formica” seems to have a diverse (or is it divers?) set of meanings. On the one hand we have the Latin word for ants, on the other, a hard laminated surface for tacky furniture. Is there a connection? I assumed there was some chemical (maybe formic acid?) used in the manufacture of the laminated material, but I can find no support for that theory. One dictionary suggests that formica is a shortening of the words “for mica” meaning a replacement for the mineral mica. I find this unappealing since I’ve never seen furniture topped with mica. Any theories? — Jim Brown.

Whoa. I thought you’d never ask. Not “you,” personally, but “anybody.” A few years ago I wrote a book, titled “From Altoids to Zima,” which explained the stories behind popular company and product names. It got great reviews and was excerpted in People and Reader’s Digest, but never made it into the major US bookstore chain because, it turned out, said chain (rhymes with Farnes and Zoble) wanted to kill the book so that they could offer a year later (they really did this) to “republish” it on the cheap under their own imprint. Uh, no thanks. It’s still available at Amazon.

Anyway, for old times’ sake and as a belated plug for my poor, mistreated book, I’m going to reproduce the entry on “Formica” from way back in 2004:

Devotees of TV home-renovation and decorating shows know that the really important decision in re-doing the family kitchen today has nothing to do with appliances, lighting, or what you put on the floor. No, it’s by your counter-tops that you will be judged, and many’s the home loan that has been floated to bridge the golden gap betwixt faux marble and the real, preferably imported Italian, article. Whether the subsequent bologna sandwiches taste better for being prepared on such a pricey surface is, of course, debatable.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, however, the fashionable modern home was one whose owners had sprung for the countertop of the future — Formica. By the late 1960s and 70s, in fact, Formica seemed to top nearly every flat surface in the land. Restaurant tables, school desks, retail counters and even the floor of Radio City Music Hall in New York City were all made of sleek, smooth Formica.

For a biology student of the day, the name Formica must have presented a bit of a puzzle. “Formica” is also the genus name of the taxonomic family Formicidae, those pesky little insects better known as “ants.”

Fortunately, there is no connection between the name “Formica” and ants, but the path Formica took from its invention to America’s counter-tops was a bit convoluted. Way back in 1912, Dan J. O’Conor was a young engineer working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh when he had a good idea. If you were to coat fabric with resin while it rolled onto a spindle, you could then cut the roll lengthwise, flatten it, and, after curing, you would have a laminate material that would be light, durable, and, most important to O’Conor’s line of work, an excellent electrical insulator. O’Conor promptly took his invention to his bosses at Westinghouse, who agreed that it was a clever idea and paid him, according to standard company policy, the princely sum of one dollar for the patent.

Mr. O’Conor must have been less than thrilled with this treatment, because within weeks he and his friend Herbert A. Faber both quit Westinghouse and started their own company to produce the material. At that time the standard material for electrical insulators was mica, a natural family of minerals. As the new synthetic material was intended as a substitute for mica, the name “Formica” was a natural.

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