The Origin of the Looney Tune’s “ACME” Corporation Name

An actual roadrunner bird.  MEEP MEEP!

An actual roadrunner bird. MEEP MEEP!

For those of you who didn’t spend your childhood with your eyes glued to the TV screen watching Saturday morning cartoons, “ACME” is the name of the fictional company that appeared in almost every Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. This company supplied Wile E. Coyote with a never-ending range of ridiculous products that would inevitably fail, generally with hilarious consequences.

Without a doubt, the company name is used ironically in the Looney Tunes cartoons. “ACME” comes from the Greek, meaning “peak” / “zenith” / “prime”, so in the case of the company, essentially meaning  “best”, when in fact the products offered by the corporation in the show are invariably prone to disaster, something which ACME even acknowledges through its slogan – “Quality is our #1 dream”.

In the 1920s alphabetized phone books – like the Yellow Pages – were growing in popularity, resulting in businesses re-branding under a different name in order to get to the top of the list and get seen by more people. ACME was a hugely popular choice for a name at the time, since the letters AC are close to the beginning of the alphabet and the definition of the word suggests superiority.

(Aside: Amazon.com did this same type of thing when rebranding from “Cadabra” to “amazon”, attempting to be put closer to the top of alphabetical online browsing indexes, something that was very common at the time.)

Chuck Jones – writer, director, and animator who worked on Merrie Melodies and, of course, Looney Tunes cartoons for over 3 decades – touched upon the name’s origin in an interview carried out for the 2009 film Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood, in which he explained:

Since we had to search out our own entertainment, we devised our own fairy stories. If you wanted a bow and arrow, you got a stick. If you wanted to conduct an orchestra, you got a stick. If you wanted a duel, you used a stick. You couldn’t go and buy one. That’s where the term ACME came from. Whenever we played a game where we had a grocery store or something, we called it the ACME Corporation. Why? Because in the yellow pages if you looked, say, under drugstores, you’d find the first one would be Acme Drugs. Why? Because “AC” was about as high as you could go. It means the best, the superlative.

So although the fictional company may boast an interesting line of products – including the ACME Building Disintegrator and ACME Ultimatum Dispatcher – the origin of its name isn’t quite as exciting. It was simply a commonly used name at the time, inferring a company was the best, which the guys at Looney Tunes adopted and used with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks.

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Bonus Facts

  • The fastest recorded speed for an actual “Greater Roadrunner” bird is 26 mph (42 kp/h).  The kicker?  Coyotes have a top speed of over 40 mph (64 km/h).
  • In the cartoon, ACME is eventually revealed as being “A Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of Roadrunner Corporation”, which of course indicates that Road Runner was in control of the company’s products. His position would then allow him to pass on all the faulty or untested goods to Wile. E. Coyote, thereby sabotaging his plan before it even was put into action
  • Some people think that ACME is an acronym for “A Company that Makes Everything”, or a slight variation of the phrase. This is little more than a happy coincidence when taking into consideration that acronyms didn’t appear in the OED until 1943 – and “ACME” had been being used in Hollywood since as early as 1920 and by corporations before that. This is a prime example of a “backronym” – a phrase made up to match the letters.
  • Previous to the mid-20th century, while abbreviations were prevalent in text, pronouncing them as words was not something people typically did, being something of a very modern phenomenon. In fact, according to linguist David Wilton, “There is only one known pre-twentieth-century [English] word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is ‘colinderies’ or ‘colinda’, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year.”
  • Thirty one years after the cartoon’s debut, Wile E. Coyote successfully caught the Road Runner, before holding up two signs saying, “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him – now what do I do?” In this case, Wile E. Coyote had shrunk and was now facing a giant Road Runner – against which he didn’t stand a chance.
  • Wile E. Coyote usually communicates in this way – through holding up signs – although he has been known to speak in a handful of shows. When he talks, he has a British accent and refers to himself as “Wile E. Coyote: Super Genius”.
  • As well as being featured in the Looney Tune shows, the ACME name is widely used as a generic brand in a large number of other cartoons, comics, TV shows and films. One of the earliest appearances of the name was in Buster Keaton’s 1920 movie, Neighbors.
  • Sears – the popular department store chain – used the ACME name for one of their in-house brands in the early 1900s. One of their first branded products was an “ACME American Wrought Anvil”.
[Image via Shutterstock] Expand for References
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