My January column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at how smart came to be attached to so many inanimate objects, from phones to skin lotion, from bombs to highways, from quotation marks to fabric. Along the way, I consider the multiple senses of this very old word, which can mean “stylish,” “cheeky,” or “to cause pain,” as well as “witty” or “intelligent.”
No subscription needed to view the column this month (not always the case!). Here’s a taste:
The sense of smart = shrewd extends to the slangy smart-ass, which first appeared in print in 1951 in an American detective novel. (OED on smart-ass: “orig. and chiefly U.S.; characterized by an overly clever or smug display of intelligence or [esp. professional] knowledge.”) The term’s mild vulgarity might seem to preclude its incorporation into branding and advertising, but that’s not the case at all.
Blog extra: A smart gun is one that uses biometrics to recognize its user. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about one such gun for the January 18, 2015, Sunday Review:
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?
Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”
Smart guns are “smart” in at least two senses of the word: clever and connected. And yet, Kristof writes, “The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory.”
If you needed proof that “ass” and its variants (kick-ass, bad-ass, Big Ass) have become unexceptional in mainstream US advertising, here’s a new Verizon ad that tells customers they can “stop living with half-fast Internet.”
Geddit? “Half-assed,” haha.
Update, December 2014: the video I originally embedded is no longer available, but the campaign continues.
Meanwhile, a new cookbook from Rodale—yes, that Rodale, 84 years old and famous for healthy-living publications like Women’s Health and Prevention—says F-U to innuendo and drives straight into foul territory.
Ad for Big Ass Fans, New York Times Sunday Magazine, August 11, 2013:
“Four microprocessors, one smart-ass ceiling fan.”
“Big Ass” translates to “extremely big,” but “smart-ass” does not (yet) mean “extremely smart.” It means “obnoxiously conceited and self-assertive; sarcastic; know-it-all.” Merriam-Webster online says “smart-ass” first appeared in print in 1964; it’s probably derived from “smart-aleck” (1865).
I would expect a “smart-ass fan” to tangle its blades in my hair and whistle leeringly. A wise guy, eh?
For some learned commentary on the productive power of -ass intensification, see Daniel Siddiqi, “The English Intensifier Ass” (Snippets, June 2011):
The first difference between ass and the other intensifiers in English is that ass is a bound morpheme, and apparently suffixal. However, ass also doesn’t act like the other suffixes that can attach to adjectives (-ly, -er, -est) nor does it have the same distribution of the other intensifiers.
See also my posts on -ass intensification in commercial naming, here and here.
* I do like many of the Big Ass Fan product names: Haiku, SweatBee, Powerfoil, Airgo, Isis.
As previouslynoted in this space, “ass” and its derivatives (bad-ass, big-ass, etc.) are fast becoming normalized and commercialized. One recent bit of evidence: this punning outdoor ad for bareMinerals, spotted in San Francisco:
It’s a twist, of course, on “kiss my ass [arse]”: fugeddabouddit, screw you. In this case, kiss also suggests the product category.
The slightly naughty language represents a departure for bareMinerals’ 35-year-old, San Francisco-based parent company, Bare Escentuals, whose About page is wholesomely earnest:
Love. Understanding. Community. That’s what Bare Escentuals represents. It’s a trusted source. It’s the belief that products can actually be good, makeup can be fun, business can be personal and companies can behave more like communities.
The company built its reputation through direct sales on QVC and later moved into department stores, beauty boutiques, and its own free-standing shops. Product names have traditionally been mildly descriptive and aspirational – Mineral Veil, Prime Time, Active Cell Renewal Night Serum – but lately have nudged into edgier territory (Lash Domination mascara, blushers called The Close Call and The Indecent Proposal).
“Sass” (from “sassy,” a variation of “saucy”) has been around in American English since the 1830s. Sassy was a magazine for teen girls (1988-1994) that lives on in tribute blogs and books.
As for “moxie” in Marvelous Moxie lipstick – trademark registration pending – it’s a synonym for “courage” or “aggressive energy” that was borrowed (around 1930, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary) from the Moxie beverage brand name, trademark-protected since 1924:
[A] bitter, non-alcoholic drink, 1885, perhaps as far back as 1876 as the name of a patent medicine advertised to “build up your nerve;” despite legendary origin stories put out by the company that made it, it is perhaps ultimately from a New England Indian word (it figures in river and lake names in Maine, where it is apparently from Abenaki and means “dark water”). Much-imitated in its day; in 1917 the Moxie Company won an infringement suit against a competitor's beverage marketed as “Proxie.”
The Moxie brand abides; after a couple of changes of ownership, it’s now the property of Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New England, which produces the beverage in Londonderry, NH. Other bottling companies manufacture Moxie in Washington, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. There’s a wonderfully eclectic fan site here, and some interesting trademark lore here.
Love that wordmark.
There are also Moxie showerheads, Moxie software, a Moxie Cycling Co., a Moxie golf academy, Moxie dental adhesives, Moxie pest control, Moxie candles, Moxie golf clubs, Moxie “canine candles,” and many other Moxie marks.
None of these Moxies is to be confused with moxa, the bundle of herbs used in moxibustion, a traditional medical therapy. Moxa comes from mogusa, the Japanese word for mugwort.
Designer Ben Pieratt has created a “brand in a box”—name, logo, URL, social-media accounts, website theme, and more—that he’s selling for $18,000. It’s up to the buyer to choose how to use it. The brand’s name is Hessian, which Pieratt says he chose to honor Richard Hess, an advertising art director who died in 1991. Until I learned that, I assumed it had something to do with the German mercenary soldiers who fought on the British side in the American Revolution, or possibly a type of coarse woven cloth. The domain included in Pieratt’s brand package is dot-tv, which may be a deal-breaker for potential buyers. Read more at AdFreak.
“To us, the unicorn symbolizes the never-ending quest for mastery”: a Tumblr of the absurd, pretentious, and just plain daffy things branding agencies say about themselves, from the understandably anonymous Agency Wank.
In a similar vein: Design Jargon Bullshit, ripped from actual websites. Sample: “We designed a series of bubbles that represented both the idea of the consumer as having options and the letter ‘o’.”
I’ll wrap this up with something substantial: “102 Spectacular Nonfiction Stories from 2012,” selected by Conor Friedersdorf and presented in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Not only does the list contain a whole bunch of articles I missed last year, it includes several publications I’d never heard of, like Idle Words and Defunct. I’m looking forward to getting acquainted.
Actually, it’s been a very good year for every iteration of the A-word. According to the media-news site Romenesko, which pays attention to such things, “ass” has appeared 22 times on NPR in the last year, only three times “in reference to the animal.” And there’s been little objection among booksellers to the barely taboo-avoiding title of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s latest book, released in August.
Book cover with wall of assholes.
The subtitle—“Assholism, the First Sixty Years”—makes it clear that Nunberg’s A-word is “asshole,” a word Nunberg says originated among American GIs during World War II and entered everyday language in the 1970s.*
I haven’t (yet) seen “asshole” in brand language, but—as noted in this space on severalpreviousoccasions—“ass” has been steadily gaining ground in the marketplace. In fact, “bad ass,” noun and adjective, has become practically a badge of brand honor.
The winery’s own website, however, compares the taste of Charles & Charles rosé to Jolly Ranchers, which seems kind of candy-ass to me.
Down in Los Angeles, there’s a food truck—excuse me, “gourmet mobile burger concept”—that puts “badass” right up front in the name: Baby’s Badass Burgers.
(Hat tip: Michael.)
Indeed, LA may want to change its acronym to “BA.” TechCrunch reported last month on an infusion of cash for online retailer Nasty Gal, whose offices are in the 213.
Nasty Gal takes its name from the album by Betty Davis, “the patron saint of badass women,” according to the About Us page.
In other news, a movie called Ass Backwards, starring Clueless’s Alicia Silverstone, is currently in post(erior)-production. The film’s writers raised more than $50,000 in funding on Kickstarter but haven’t sent updates to backers in more than 15 months, which sounds downright A-wordish.
And because if I don’t include it I’m sure to hear from several of you, here’s your Big Ass Fans mention. The company, whose logo is a donkey’s behind, is based in Lexington, Kentucky; the ad is in the September 17 issue of the New Yorker and may represent the first time “bespoke” and “ass” have appeared together in a commercial context.
* I heard Nunberg talk about Ascent of the A-Word last month at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, where his interviewer was Robert J. Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule. Because the event was being taped for public-radio broadcast, both gentlemen had to sidestep actual A-words in favor of “A-word.” It was an impressive exercise in forbearance, although Nunberg did slip in a D-word.
Last week I wrote about the booty-fication of American brands, as evidenced by Old Navy’s Booty Reader and Booty Pop Panties. Once upon a time, a slang term like booty would have been an advertising taboo (tabooty?). But once the barriers fall, they fall hard. Booty now seems as innocent and quaint as “You bet your sweet bippy.”
As evidence, I submit this new slogan from 135-year-old denim pioneer Levi Strauss & Co.
When did booty cross the line from vulgarism to acceptable—even ubiquitous—marketing lingo? No doubt the 1997 Jamie Foxx vehicle Booty Call—which critic Roger Ebert called “the raunchiest sex comedy I can remember”—popularized what had previously been primarily street slang.* And the poster provided a helpful visual definition.
In 2010, however, brand booty-fication is less salacious than simply—well, cheeky.
I thought we'd hit bottom, brand-name-wise, with MomSpit "no-rinse cleanser," which I wrote about last week. But no. Look what else I've added to the Ew Files:
Butt Paste diaper-rash ointment. (I confess I've given this product as part of a new-baby gift; the mother pretended to be amused.)
Tough Titties Nipple Rub ("for nursing mums"), from a company that calls itself Least Likely 2 Breed. (Via Wes Phillips, who also contributed MomSpit.) The Least Likely 2 Breed stable (repository? arsenal?) of reproductively themed products also includes...
Roid Rage, "the classiest flashiest hemorrhoid remedy on the planet." (It's on the Least Likely home page, but doesn't seem to be for sale.)
Moving northward, anatomically, we also have:
Chicken Poop lip balm--yes, you put it on your mouth. Entrepreneur Jamie Tabor, a k a "Simone Chickenbone," says she got the name from her grandfather's advice for dry lips: "Rub chicken poop on 'em--that way you won't lick 'em." (Hat tip to my fellow namers at Catchword, who are not responsible for the Chicken Poop name.)
Alligator Poo Lollies--yes, you put them in your mouth. They're pillow-shaped hard candies "handcrafted from pure sugar crystals, intense flavor, and lots of hard work." This one also came to my attention by way of Catchword, which spots a trend here: "2008 will be the year of the Poo. You just watch."