Who put the ola in Victrola?

Sept, 2005

Grapeola. Radiola. Grafonola. Osceola.
So many olas.

On June 9, 1905, before he had bequeathed the Victor Victrola to the world, Eldridge Johnson wrote his attorney: "The word Victrola is similar to nothing I have ever heard of and seems to me to have a sound suggestive of music, and would in all probability be the best word to use."

Was Johnson correct? Did he spin his trademark out of whole cloth, or did something else put the ola in Victrola?

The first Victrola: The word Victrola was first used in-house in 1905, and this model, with the designation VTLA, was released in November, 1906 at a cost of $200. VTLA may have represented a distillation of Johnson's new nomenclature: ie, VicTroLA. Johnson claimed he had discussed the idea of an internal horn Victor with his brother-in-law as early as 1903. Several prototype cabinets were made by Sheip Manufacturing and the Lincoln Furniture Company, but the production models were made by the Pooley Furniture Company. Only 506 were sold the first year.
There are over 60 words in the English language ending in the suffix ola, many of ancient origin, and many of which would have been familiar to Johnson.

Let's examine the least likely candidates first:

Variola, for example, a synonym for smallpox, first appears in print in 1771, and rubeola, a fancy term for the measles, in 1676, but it's unlikely that Johnson would want to create an association between disease and his product.

Similarly, we can eliminate hemimetabola (1870), a class of insects which undergo complete metamorphosis, and holometabola (1870), a class of insects which undergo incomplete metamorphosis. Johnson had no scientific training in biology, and anyway, wouldn't want to scare away any clientele that suffered from entomophobia (an irrational fear of insects).

Although little is known of Johnson's dietary preferences, he might have warmed to Gorgonzola (1878), a type of blue cheese, although it's unlikely he ever had a chance to taste of carambola (1598), an exotic East Indian fruit.

We need to peer more closely at Johnson's background. He had worked as a bookbinder, and was running a machine shop when Berliner approached him. Doubtless he had occasions to draw a parabola (1544), a curve, and a hyperbola (1668) a plane curve (not to be confused with the hyperbole (1529) --exaggeration-- that later came out of Victor's advertising department).

How about placenames? There are over 200 ending in ola.

A large number of American Indian names end in ola, most notably several destinations in Florida including Apalachicola, Pensicola, and even tiny Lake Ola. Johnson travelled extensively in his later years, including a scientific expedition to South America. In 1903 he had taken a business trip to Russia to examine the talking machine business there. But there's no evidence that during his early years he had ever vacationed in Florida.

Historical personages? There's nothing in the record to show that he was infatuated by the Italian revolutionary Savonarola. Nor was he Catholic, and a follower of Saint Ignatius Loyola. Let's return to the "sound suggestive of music." Put aside for a moment the mandola (1758), a large variety of mandolin, for Johnson stated in later years that Victrola was a combination of Victor and viola. True? Suspicious. The viola is not a star instrument, nor a solo instrument, of the orchestra. That honor is reserved for the violin. (How many viola solos were later recorded on Victor records?)

Product names? Getting closer.

Two consumables derived from the cola or kola (1795) tree, a native of tropical Africa, would have been well advertised and familiar to Johnson. They were of course Coca-Cola (1887) "the brain tonic and intellectual soda fountain beverage" and the upstart Pepsi-Cola (1903). But the word Victrola wasn't suggested by America's favorite drinks. It was suggested by another heavily advertised product.

The Pianola.

Patents for the Pianola had been filed in 1897. In 1903 the father and son team of William B. Tremaine and Harry B. Tremaine had organized the Aeolian and Pianola companies, capitalized at $10 million. The Tremaines had a lot of money to spend, and they spent it agressively on advertising, including testimonials from prominent musicians such as Paderewski. Pianola became a synonym for player piano, in the same way that Victrola later became a synonym for talking machine. It was highly unlikely that Johnson was unaware of the Pianola.

So the complete linguistic derivation of Victor Victrola goes something like this: Victor was a common name used on all sorts of products from farm equipment to household goods. Johnson even once remarked that the name was suggested by a romantic association he had with the Victor brand safety bicycle. Victrola was an amalgamation of Victor and the ola from Pianola, suggesting a musical instrument, with the ola meaning.... meaning what?

Well, nobody can be sure. One theory holds that la is an old musical term dating back to 1025.

Another theory is that la is an Italian way to express the diminutive (little piano), or a German-Jewish way to express the diminutive. There were many Italian and Jewish personalities in the popular music field at the time.

Or maybe the sound was suggested by the vowels in Aeolian -- switch Aeolian piano to piano Aeolian and euphonize it and you come out with a mouthful sounding something like Pianola.

Regardless of who put the ola in Victrola the coinage was remarkably successful. Within in a few years not only were over a hundred varieties of talking machine were ola-ized, but the concept spread to non-phonographic products such as foodstuffs, and then transformed into a sort of all-purpose suffix. American slang picked up words such as buffola and schnozzola.

A recent Associated Press dispatch about recording industry bribery to radio stations is illustrative. The writer notes that the practice is known a payola, "a combination of pay and Victrola."

A short list of olas
Grafonola - Nov. 4, 1909
Amberola - Nov. 11, 1909
Phonola - April 11, 1911
Graduola - Dec. 31, 1913
Vitanola - Feb. 15, 1915
Concertola - Dec. 15, 1915
Orchestrola - May 2, 1916
Carola - Dec. 19, 1916
Crystola - Oct. 15, 1917
Harpola - Nov. 15, 1917
Modernola - Aug. 5, 1918
Robinola - Jan. 1, 1920
Carusola - Nov. 1, 1921
Lyricola - Sept. 19, 1922
Bingola - Sept. 24, 1927


Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Koenigsberg, Allen.
Randle, William. Payola. American Speech, Vol. 36.
Ord-Hume, Arthur W. J.G. Pianola.
Oxford English Dictionary.