Naming Things.

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer writes about corporate naming, always a fruitful source of hilarity (I worked for Price Waterhouse during the time they merged with Coopers Lybrand — they paid some huge amount of money to a naming consultant to come up with an appropriate name for the joint company, and after the appropriate amount of musing and focus-group testing, they presented the grand result: PricewaterhouseCoopers, one word, two caps — genius!). He starts with Mazda’s desire to insert another model in between the CX-3 and CX-5 (“What would the logical name be? To go in between “3” and “5”? Any guesses?”) and ends with “the story of that Schiit name [of “a line of inexpensive audio products”], from Jason Stoddard, co-founder of the company”:

[I]t always seemed like I was running out to the garage (where the workbench was).

“I’ve got schiit to do,” I’d tell Lisa, and disappear.

She’s endlessly patient, but one day, she’d finally had enough. “Why don’t you just call it Schiit?” she shot back, crossing her arms.

“Call what schiit?”

“The new company. You’re always saying you’ve got schiit to do. Why not just call it Schiit?”

At first, I laughed. A company called Schiit? No sane company would do that. If we proposed that name to any Centric client, I imagined what they’d say. Way too out there. Can’t believe you’d propose that. Piss off too many people. What a crazy idea. Then they’d fire us.

But I’d had 15 years of marketing playing it safe, second-guessing everything we did, and watering down every great idea until it was meaningless. […]

“Nobody would ever forget it,” I replied, finally.

“It would cut down your marketing costs,” Lisa agreed.

“And we could say we make some really good Schiit.”

Lisa laughed. “Why not? Go ape Schiit.”

“And Schiit happens,” I agreed.

“If you don’t have our stuff, you’re up Schiit creek,” Lisa added.

I nodded and sat back. Suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. Hell, the word was meaningless for, what, 80% of the world that didn’t speak English? And if you spelled it funny, it could sound vaguely German.

Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Thanks, Jonathan!

Comments

  1. There’s a wonderful short story about naming things by Leonid Kaganov, called “Масло”. Highlights some of the possible consequences of naming things like Shiit

  2. Once, as I was driving an Austrian girl around the Pennsylvania German country in Lancaster County, I almost lost control of the car when an explosion occurred in the passenger seat. We were passing a souvenir store with a sign in fraktur, and what the fraktur read was

    Gift Haus

  3. David Marjanović says:

    PricewaterhouseCoopers, one word, two caps — genius!

    That’s nothing against HarperCollinsPublishers with its inbuilt italics.

    Mazda’s desire to insert another model in between the CX-3 and CX-5 (“What would the logical name be? To go in between “3” and “5”? Any guesses?”)

    Death.

    Hell, the word was meaningless for, what, 80% of the world that didn’t speak English?

    80% of the world know that word, and have for decades.

    it could sound vaguely German.

    Indeed Low German: sailors as represented in comicbooks say schmeiß mal den Schiet über Bord when they want to tell someone to throw the trash overboard.

  4. Robert W. M. Greaves says:

    There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Grampian TV was founded in the early 1960s, the original name was going to be Scottish Highlands and Islands TV until somebody pointed out the obvious.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Not obvious to me.

  6. Charles says:

    Not obvious to me
    Initial letters. When the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley moved to its new building in next-door Kensington it soon realized the old FUCB initials should be retained.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve probably told before that Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet (NTNU) switched science and technology for its English designation NUST. But the example above is about the opposite phenomena: Deliberately inviting an unfortunate reading of a fancy-looking name.

  8. AJP Crown says:

    A few years ago I noticed a French Connection-chain shop at Oxford Circus had for some reason a huge notice saying FUCK in its window. It turned out to be only dyslexia, and what it actually says is FCUK. On its website:

    The abbreviation FCUK was born after Trevor Beattie visited the French Connection offices and noticed the abbreviation FCHK on an internal memo, standing for French Connection Hong Kong. From this, Beattie suggested the brand use FCUK, standing for French Connection United Kingdom. In the spring of ’97 a controversial ad campaign featuring the simple line ‘fcuk fashion’ hit the headlines becoming a universally recognised great fashion moment.

    It was written with FC above UK, like Sony’s clever use of SO above NY in New York (and with football’s FC for Football Club).

    I may have mentioned before that the Waterhouse of Price Waterhouse was the brother (or something) of the great architect of the Natural History Museum (and my old school – both covered in terracotta), Alfred Waterhouse.

  9. Only vaguely related, sorry, but perhaps of interest: a discussion on Twitter about confusion between “Karen” meaning unpleasant middle-class woman, and “Karen” meaning a member of the Karen group in Myanmar, brought up the tendency of English to give meanings (pften but not always derogatory) to a lot of first names.
    There’s John, Tom, Dick, Nancy, Jody… quite apart from ethnonyms like Jock, Paddy and Mick, and names that refer to specific people like Cassandra. Am I missing any others? Do other languages do this as well? (“Jacques Bonhomme” comes to mind.)

  10. 80% of the world know that word, and have for decades.

    A couple of weeks ago I was in a local market and passed by a shop that styled itself Shit Energiya. Since all it had on offer was wire, cabling, and the like. it had nothing to do with renewable energy. (Obviously, the shit part was a contraction of the Electroshit Factory.)

    Accordingly, some places have a lot of catching up to do.

  11. SFReader says:

    That’s exactly what “shit” is for Mongolians who don’t know English.

    https://2.bp.blogspot.com/_J2B2EVCGFbU/SN4jPxwuMaI/AAAAAAAAAlU/fQb2m8IjmZQ/s400/IMG_1358.JPG

    KiPA-iin Shit is, I think, Mongolian for “Electrical distribution panel for control and measurement instruments and equipment”.

    All words (and even abbreviation KiPA) borrowed from Russian.

  12. AJP Crown says:

    Am I missing any others?
    Well, Brenda – there’s the amusing recognition that a name fits a category of people (cleaning ladies from the 1940s, in that case) and then finding the subject (the queen) is connected in some ways (hairdo) but not in others (job); it’s a similar disjuncture to the Monty Python cleaning ladies discussing Sartre. Our dog was stranded in England during the lockdown, staying with a friend’s Irish wolfhound named Peggy. The contrast between the cuddly old-fashioned name and the enormous feral-looking creature was funny (to some of us).

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Peggy Thatcher was pretty feral.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Do other languages do this as well?

    The Austrian insult [ˈhɪɐ̯sl̩] for stupid people of the male persuasion is traditionally explained as the common name Matthias; but there’s no [h] in Matthias, so I’m not sure – and Matthias remains common.

  15. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_heilige_Hies
    I do not know if Thoma was using an existing stereotype.

  16. AJP Crown says:

    Peggy Thatcher was pretty feral.

    Feral and uncultivated for a witch, but I was thinking more of Peggy Archer. It’s a radio programme and I only now see she remarried and was played by the queen.

  17. Schlitz was the largest mass-produced American beer for half a century or more. There wasn’t anything amusing about the name. And Sheetz is still a major convenience store chain in Pennsylvania. So what’s happened? I have two hypotheses:

    – The German influence on American English and on culture generally has waned, due in part to the two world wars and in part to the assimilation of German immigrant communities, which used to be quite distinct in certain regions. (Not coincidentally, the Sheetz chain is dominant in central Pennsylvania, an area with strong German heritage.)

    – “Dirty words” used to be truly taboo, and were not printed or uttered – or even hinted at – in polite company. You wouldn’t make a joke out of a name like Schlitz because doing so would make everyone turn their heads away in disgust. But today, shit is only mildly offensive and therefore it’s much more available for humor.

  18. My great aunt (born in an English speaking country) was always reluctant to use the Croatian infinitive and subjunctive of the verb “to sow” – šiti and šit respectively.

    On the subject of PwC, their corporate website uses the abbreviation PwC for PricewaterhouseCoopers. This abbreviation was consistent with the name and their old logo. Confusingly, their new logo is all lower case: pwc.
    I recall attending a very detailed induction session on branding when I worked there, so I’d imagine that they invest a lot in branding and no doubt get a lot of value for money out of it.

  19. I’d imagine that they invest a lot in branding and no doubt get a lot of value for money out of it.

    The first part is definitely true, but I don’t see how the second part follows. When you’re as rich as those people, you can afford to throw away vast sums on things like that just to say you did, like buying a stupidly expensive watch.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    I resent doing it for Apple’s iProducts but really I’d rather die than follow some bean counter’s proposal of how to use random upper & lower case letters. This is a man with a shiny windsor-knotted tie telling me about design.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    Back in my ’70’s childhood you had to be a little more clever/subtle to evoke-but-then-not-actually-say the taboo word in question, although it turns out (the supposedly liberating Sixties be damned) that 1975-era popular culture was just repopularizing a routine from the Dark Ages of 1946. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaving_Cream_(song)

  22. David L says:

    Am I missing any others?

    An American friend of mine who moved to England was very taken with the name ‘Wally’ being used to describe a certain kind of person–a dim-witted but generally harmless oaf. We couldn’t come up with an American equivalent. ‘Dick’ is too insulting.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    I read somewhere that respectable young ladies from Thailand have some difficulty with saying the English word “yet.” Sadly my knowledge of Thai tabu vocabulary is much too poor for me to able to expound further.

  24. SFReader says:

    I wonder what the Turks feel saying for the first time in English – “I am sick”

  25. PlasticPaddy says:
  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Plastic:

    I knew I could rely on the Hattic Community …

    Many thanks.

  27. John Cowan says:

    I read somewhere or other that the Nuučaan̓uɫ word for ‘cunt’ is homonymous with English such, making that word off-limits in their English. Since there are only a little over a hundred speakers left, it would be interesting to know if the taboo persists.

    The story with Schlitz seems to be that the formula was changed in the mid-1970s: “using corn syrup to replace some of the malted barley, adding a silica gel to prevent the product from forming a haze, using high-temperature fermentation instead of the traditional method, and substituting less-expensive extracts rather than traditional ingredients. […] The reformulated product resulted in a beer that not only lost much of the flavor and consistency of the traditional formula, but also spoiled more quickly, rapidly losing public appeal.” (WP)

    Unfortunately, when the company was sold, the old formula was lost and so was not part of the sale. Despite the product changing hands several more times, nobody wanted to drink the New Schlitz. Pabst eventually bought the rights in 1999 and, what by documentary research, what by interviews with former Schlitzers, they were able to reconstruct the lost formula and began in a small way to market the original and a few variants in 2008.

    As for the Turks, it’s seek they would have problems with because of sik ‘penis’. Sick sounds more like sık ‘dense, thick’.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Der heilige Hies

    Fully convincing, up to and including the “wholly untalented son of a farmer”.

    As for the Turks, it’s seek they would have problems with because of sik ‘penis’. Sick sounds more like sık ‘dense, thick’.

    Unlikely; Turkish vowels are all rather lax.

  29. “Am I missing any others?” — I take it you mean names as shorthand for personality types? (As opposed to, say, synonyms for private parts, in which case you are missing many others.)

    BrE “wally” in the sense “inept person” is lowercased. As is “stan”, unlike its Eminem eponym (? because of either its social-media origins or its use as a verb).

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