People keep e-mailing me articles based on a new book called The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, by Adam Jacot De Boinod. (The publisher must have one hell of a PR person.) I didn’t really feel like going into the “weird furrin words” thing again, so I’m glad to report that Benjamin Zimmer has done a good job in Language Log. He’s a little too polite for my taste, calling it “unfair to prejudge de Boinod’s book based solely on early press accounts” (if you can’t be unfair about fake language mavens, who can you be unfair about?), but he demolishes the Malay material with gusto. And he provides this delightful anecdote:

As an aside, the reliance on sketchy online dictionaries and wordlists can yield unintentionally humorous results. Take, for instance, the Maserati Kubang. Unveiled in 2003, this “concept car” is supposedly named after “a wind over Java.” (Maserati has a tradition of naming cars after exotic-sounding winds.) Close, but no cigar — the actual word is kumbang, not kubang. Angin kumbang literally means “bumblebee wind” in Javanese and Indonesian, and it refers to a very dry south or southwesterly wind that blows into the port of Cirebon on the north coast of Java. But this got mangled on various websites listing winds of the world…, and kumbang was changed to kubang. What does kubang mean in Indonesian? “Mudhole, mud puddle, quagmire.” Probably not the image Maserati was going for!

The Maserati Mudhole—has a ring to it, doesn’t it?


  1. That doesn’t follow, though. The car could still be named after the wind, even though they changed the word so that it would be less like “cum ba[n]g”. Similarly, you could name a car after a car after Thomas Pynchon and still have the car’s name end up being the Toyota Pyncho.

  2. The possibility that the Maserati people had renamed “Kumbang” as “Kubang” to avoid the salacious reading of “cum-bang” was one that I had initially considered when discussing this in an alt.folklore.urban thread in 2003. But I abandoned that idea after discovering that the Javanese wind was invariably rendered as “kubang” in online lists of wind names (usually with the same definition — “in Java, a chinook” — suggesting that there’s one ultimate source for the misinformation). Besides, as one a.f.u contributor mentioned, “Kubang” still lends itself to the unfortunate reading of “ke-BANG!”.

  3. I find the possibility of queue-bang even worse.

  4. There was a review of this on the radio on Monday, which people might be interested in hearing to judge for themselves. It seems to be of absolutely no use academically, and not intended to be, but something that would be enjoyable to skim through; its purpose being to record words from other languages that have no equivalent in English. You do, though, have to admire the chutzpah (would that qualify?) of a man who admits on this broadcast that he only speaks English.
    Anyway, if you’d like to listen to it any time before next Monday go to:
    and on the right of the screen click on “Robert Elms: Monday”. As I recall, it was on the show between 1.05 pm and 1.20 pm.

  5. My mother calls Maseratis “Sirá-paráti’s” = Tagalog ‘always broken’. I wonder why.
    (The author set up a blog to accompany the book, and I bet he solicited most blogging linguists for endorsement by linking.)

  6. Is the story of the marketing failure that occurred when the Chevy No Va was sold in Latin America only an urban legend?

  7. Yes.

  8. I imagine the Toyota MR2 sells less well in France than it does in Britain.

  9. What about the Lamborghini Countach? According to several Piedmontese dictionaries, ‘contacc’ is used to express amazament. It derives from the word meaning ‘infection, contagion’, with reference to the plagues in 1559 e 1631. Some Websites say it is ‘Piedmontese slang’. I wonder what Piedmontese slang is.

  10. Economist review may indicate basis for appeal (comparing aptly to prior, ahem, art), particularly as Taiwan is under threat of an unfortunately named super typhoon.

  11. It looks like the battle against “tingo” is thoroughly lost.

  12. *groan*

  13. And today my local rag gave it several column inches as well, so the plague has reached all the way up here to Aotearoa.

  14. The “No va” UL is oft-discussed on alt.folklore.urban. In 1996 I posted to a.f.u. a parody that demonstrates why this, and many other (but not all) ULs like it are silly.
    “Why ‘Notice’ Failed in North America”

  15. Back in the UK in the 1970s/1980s Ford had a car called the Ford Cortina. Doesn’t this just mean the Ford Curtain?

  16. It’s more of a question and a plea for help than a comment – I haven’t read Tingo, and I don’t know if the word I’m searching for is out there, but I need to know if there’s a word or short phrase to describe someone who looks great in motion and not so great when still (I’m thinking Steffi graf here, although a lot of sports people seem to qualify) and I was directed to you. Any ideas?

  17. Nothing occurs to me, I’m afraid.

  18. They also did a Ford Corsair, Known as The Pube, (Coarse Hair…. geddit?)

Speak Your Mind