A fledgling Japanese automobile company asked a veteran German auto maker to suggest a name for its new car.
"We need a name no later than tomorrow," said the Japanese official.
"Dat soon?" replied the surprised German.
And Nissan's famous Datsun series was born.
Such jokes were told everywhere in the 1960s, even on radio and TV, and Nissan Motor Co. USA was delighted.
"The jokes were of great help in extending our sales," says Yutaka Katayama, or "Mr. K" as he is known in Datsun circles. Katayama was Nissan USA president during the Datsun heyday of the '60s and '70s. He lives in retirement in Tokyo now but keeps in touch with his American admirers via e-mail and occasional visits.
The real story of how the Datsun automobile got its name offers almost as much fun as the jokes.
In the second decade of the 20th century, or 1911 to be precise, three Japanese gentlemen invested in a small company named Kwaishinsha. Their surnames were Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi, or DAT when truncated, and a small vehicle named DAT was manufactured.
Kwaishinsha Motors eventually became DAT Automobiles, then was reorganized as Nissan in 1933. But in the meantime, about 1931, a two-seater sports car was produced. This was "Son of DAT," or Datson.
Notice the "son" suffix. The trouble was son in Japanese suggests losing money, and Japanese businessmen, like their counterparts everywhere, don't want to do that. So son was changed to sun, which has a positive connotation in both English and Japanese.
Now let's go back to "DAT." Japanese cannot pronounce this "word" with precision. Instead, they must say "datto," which to them means a fleeing rabbit, an appropriate image for a speedy little car. A common expression in Japan is datto no gotoku, a simile that aptly describes a frightened man who runs away "like a fleeing rabbit."
To this day, whenever "Datsun" is mentioned in Japanese newspapers and magazines, the name is rendered as "Dattosan," always in katakana, the syllabary used for foreign words that can't be written in ideographs. Where does the san come from? Well, san could be derived from sangyo, which means "manufacturing enterprise," as it does in the ideographic "Nissan," but san most often means "Mister," "Mrs." or "Miss."
"Mr. Fleeing Rabbit" sounds fine to this proud owner of a 28-year-old Datsun 510 wagon, although I consider my little old workhorse to be female, so I'll call her "Mrs. Fleeing Rabbit." She is too old to be a miss.
Jackson Sellers, an editorial systems manager for The Times, can be reached at email@example.com. His previous article on Datsun--specifically his beloved 1972 PL510 wagon--can be found on our Web site, http://www.latimes.com/highway1.