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The Concise and Correct Explanation of the Starbucks Naming Myth

What was the inspiration for the naming of Starbucks Coffee? If you look almost anywhere on the web, you will find statements that explain Moby Dick was the founder's favorite novel, and in it was a coffee-loving First Mate named Starbuck. Having recently read Moby Dick, I knew this couldn't be correct: the First Mate in Moby Dick is named Starbuck, but he is not a (known) coffee lover. When I heard Susan Stamberg perpetuate the myth on NPR, I knew it was time to take action.

So I searched the Starbucks web site, expecting to find the true and official explanation. Surprisingly, there was nothing of the sort. So I emailed Starbucks, asking for the explanation. They did write back, but the response I received was incomplete. However, it cited the book "Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time", by Howard Schultz, who became Starbucks sole owner when he bought out the three Starbucks founders, in 1987. That gave me the idea to consult the book myself. Herewith, then, is my concise explanation, gleaned from Schultz' book.

Moby Dick was indeed a book beloved of one of the Starbucks founders. He proposed naming the company Pequod, after the ship. "Pee-quod" was nixed by his partners, and they cast about for a name with some local flavor (local to Seattle, Washington). They came upon the name Starbo, from an old mining camp on Mt. Rainier, and liked it. Then the Moby Dick fan drew a phonetic connection between "Starbo" and the novel--the Pequod's First Mate named Starbuck. And Starbucks it was.

So it is not so hard to imagine how the urban legend might have evolved. Known fact: the name of the company came from the name of a mate in Moby Dick. Dim recollection from high school: one of the mates in Moby Dick had an uncommon passion for a substance of oral fixation (Stubb, not Starbuck; for his pipe, not for coffee). Voila, the brain connects up a plausible, internally consistent explanation; better than the original, except that it isn't correct (1). Like many urban legends, this one contains an element of truth. Unlike many, it seems to me that it probably arose from an innocent "false memory" (2), rather than a more deliberate perversion of fact.


(1) This reminds me of something I read recently, can't remember where, that fiction is more satisfying than reality, because fiction requires itself to be consistent.

(2) It would be interesting, but far beyond this blogger's ambition, to trace the first recountings of the myth.

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Last update: 2/27/2006; 10:34:56 PM.