A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do they call cotton swabs Q-tips?

July 18, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Enough with the cheesebrain questions about eggs and gerbils and slug salting already. I want the facts. Why do they call Q-tips Q-tips?

Cecil replies:

The official explanation, which is not altogether satisfying, is that the name stands for "quality tips." I get this from the folks at Chesebrough-Pond's, the manufacturer. It all started back in 1926. Until then the company's cotton swabs were called Baby Gays, mainly because you were supposed to poke them into infants. Apparently having an inkling that the name Baby Gays might strike certain persons as humorous in years to come — one recalls the sad fate of Fairy Soap, whose ads once said, "Do you have a little Fairy in your home?" — the company decided to adapt to the new era by changing the name to Q-tips Baby Gays, and eventually just to Q-tips. Another reason for the change was the realization that the whole family could use cotton swabs, not just babies.

Cecil does not find this very convincing, however. My guess is that this "quality tip" business was invented after the fact to justify a name that was already being casually used by the boys out at the factory. If we examine a typical Q-tip in profile, we note that the cotton part is oval-shaped, with the stick poking out the bottom. Now, what well-known letter of the alphabet does this resemble? You got it. Admittedly this is only speculation, but hey, "quality" tips? Come on.

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