Bulbul is a contemporary Danish watch brand with a name whose etymological tentacles extend into in at least three languages, none of them Scandinavian.
Bulbul makes three minimalist styles of watch. The watches do only two things: tell time and look beautiful.
That asymmetrical face? Breathtaking. And, it turns out, devilishly difficult to manufacture. As Wired magazine reported in 2013, when Bulbul launched, “Factories are set up to make circular, square, and oval watches, but the subtly asymmetrical shape of the Pebble required almost every part to be customized—from the sapphire crystal on the face to hidden rubber rings inside the watch that keep it waterproof.” (Lots of droolworthy photos here.)
I’m going to wrench myself out of my covetous reverie (the watch is probably too big for me anyway, right?) and focus on the name: Where does “Bulbul” come from?
Here’s Wired again:
Bulbuls are songbirds that can carry a tune as well as their cousins the nightingales, but have a more raucous nature and a dash of punk-rock style with distinct “mohawk” plumage on their heads.
Bulbuls are native to much of Africa, the Middle East, tropical Asia, and Indonesia. The Wikipedia entry says bulbul comes from an Arabic word meaning “nightingale” (which bulbuls are not). Merriam-Webster and OED say it’s Persian, via Arabic. (I’d love to get an expert analysis of the etymology. What I know about Semitic languages like Arabic – and Hebrew, which will enter the picture shortly – is that they’re based on three-consonant roots, to which vowels are added to create different tenses and parts of speech. Salaam: s-l-m. Shalom: sh-l-m. But bulbul has a four-consonant root: b-l-b-l. That may suggest it was borrowed from some other language. Or it may just be onomatopoetic, which means the rules go out the window.)
Bulbul, the watch company, goes with the Persian version:
Bulbul can be summed up as an extension of the company’s passions and interests; the forward-thinking aesthetic and playful, Persian name reflects its founder’s inherent love of having the freedom to follow one’s intuition, his restless fascination with traveling and his fondness for interacting with a diverse spectrum of cultural impulses and philosophies.
I hadn’t known that songbirds interact with a diverse spectrum of cultural impulses and philosophies. Then again, I’m no ornithologist.
Like bulbul birds, bulbul the word moved around a lot in Central Asia and the Middle East. In Azerbaijani, as in Arabic, it means “nightingale”; it was the stage name of a famous Azerbaijani and Soviet opera tenor whose birth name was Murtuza Rza oglu Mammadov (1897–1961). After it entered English, in the mid-17th century, it was frequently used as a synonym for “singer.”
Bulbuls – the birds – are found in Israel as well, where they’re called, well, bulbul. (Plural: bulbulim.) They’re common enough that in 2008 the bulbul almost became Israel’s national bird. And it’s probably just as well that the campaign failed, writes Shoshana Kordova in Ha’aretz, because in Hebrew bulbul is “a popular childish name for the male reproductive organ that has been known to cause the same kind of snickering you would get in English if you were to casually mention to people who were not ornithology enthusiasts that you had just spotted some great tits – I am referring to the woodland bird, of course – through your binoculars.”
But wait – there’s more! Kordova continues:
The origins of bulbul as a nickname for Mr. Schlong are confounded, however, by the similarity between bulbul and the Hebrew for “confusion,” bilbul, with bulbul at one point referring to someone who was mevulbal, or confused. In fact, Israel’s educational television used the word freely in a series of five-minute traffic-safety ads in the 1970s starring Shmulik, better known as Bulbul Hakabulbul, whose thinking is so muddled he doesn’t always remember to cross the street safely.
Ha’aretz has more than one reporter on the weenie beat. Thanks to Elon Gilad, I now know that Hebrew, “an otherwise rather sparse language,” has “dozens of terms” for penis. (That’s not counting all the Yiddish terms frequently used by Hebrew speakers.) Gilad naturally includes this reflection on bulbul, which he characterizes as “a children’s word”:
How bulbul could become a word for penis is unclear. There's a common bird named bulbul, of the Pycnonotidae family (not so weird - think of "cock"). Or maybe the word originated in the name of a stick, weirdly called bulbul, which Israeli kids used when playing doodes (a local version of cricket). Or maybe it came from an Arabic word for “spout,” bulbula.
I know a little Hebrew, but had been familiar only with another slang term, zayin. Imagine my surprise to learn that the “polite, official” word for penis is peen – which is of course a not-so-official English slang term for the same thing. Gilad writes that Hebrew peen came from “an ancient typographical error.” I’ve already strayed too far from my original subject to go into it, but it’s a fascinating story, so hop over to the article to read all about it.
Two final naming notes: Bulbul is the brand; KiBiSi is the design team behind it. “KiBiSi” was formed from the initial sounds of three Danish design firms: Kilo Design, the Bjarke Ingels Group, and Skibsted Ideation.
And “Pebble”? Here’s what the KiBiSi website has to say: “Pebble is organic like the human body and the pebbles found on Scandinavian beaches.”