Hoist the bare aluminum pole, my friends: today is Festivus, which means it’s time once again for my favorite holiday tradition, The Airing of Grievances.
For this year’s A of G—the sixth in a series—I’ve gathered some of the worst offenders from the world of marketing: the gaffes, goofs, and boneheaded blunders that we’ll recall for as long as schadenfreude remains in season.
Cromnibus: The $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 11 and by the Senate on December 13. The word is a portmanteau of omnibusbill (per Vox, “how Congress funds the government when things are working normally”—which in recent sessions is never) and the initials of continuing resolution, (“how Congress funds the government when it can’t come to a deal”). The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature. Also spelled CRomnibus.
Omnibusentered English—from a Latin word meaning “for all”—around 1829; it described “a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers.” By 1832 it had been truncated to bus. In reference to legislation, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, omnibus goes back to 1842.
Cromnibus caught on, however briefly, not only because of our enduring affection for portmanteaus but also because the word triggered similar-sounding associations that tickled our collective fancy. One of those associations is cronut, the croissant/donut hybrid invented—and trademarked—in 2013 by New York bakery owner Dominique Ansel. It has inspired dozens of imitators.
The cronot, a specialty of Bay Area bakery chain Posh Bagel. (Spotted earlier this month on Piedmont Avenue, Oakland.)
The omni- prefix has been used with sardonic intent in another recent-ish coinage, omnishambles, invented by British writer/director Armando Ianucci for a 2009 episode of “The Thick of It.” It was famously used in 2012 in the British House of Commons.
Update: Ben Zimmer alerted me to “the clever meta-blend cromnishambles,” as seen on Twitter last week.
Speaking of -bus words, and of Britain (but not of politics), IncubusLondon is a newish venture whose name is intended to be a portmanteau of [startup]incubator plus bus: it’s a co-working space in a London double-decker bus. Unfortunately, incubus has a separate and sinister meaning: “a male demon who comes upon women in their sleep and rapes them.” You’d think the London gang would have learned from Reebok’s costly misstep, back in 1996, when it named a women’s running shoe the Incubus. According to the Snopes entry, “Reebok Incubus” had been developed in-house and selected from a master list of about 1,500 names. Whoops:
Much chagrined, the company recalled 18,000 boxes of these unsold $57.99 shoes. The poorly researched name did not appear on the footwear itself but merely on its boxes, which provides a potential explanation for how the product’s rollout process got so far along before anyone commented on the unseemly name.
More of an excuse than an explanation, if you ask me.
From whence the name? It’s a play to make the word “mortgage” less weighty and ponderous. According to [founder Patrick] Browne, the company thought that “S’moretgage could be a nice way to make that word sound a bit less intimidating.” Once you learn how to spell it, it’s not too hard to remember.
But few commercial portmanteaus rise to those heights. Instead, what we see is a lot of chop-and-jam (or perhaps choja, as the blend trend would have it).
Last year, for example, saw the debut of Burger King’s Satisfries, a combo of “satisfy” and “fries” that satisfied no one. (It doesn’t help that the word sounds almost exactly like “saddest fries.”) Sonic Drive-Intortured phonetics with Spicedictive, a distinctly nonaddictive word. The New York Times devoted many column inches to a bourbon-rye blend called Bourye, which I see as Bour Ye and want to pronounce like “Hear ye, hear ye!”
Also in 2013, Subway introduced the Flatizza (flatbread/pizza), which invites adolescent chortling* about flat tits.
Image via A Walk in the Words, who called Flatizza “a phonetically problematic portmanteau.” Indeed.
And I’m sorry to say that we are far from finished with this tired trend. Today marks the rollout of Framily, from Sprint.
This Technology tip via brother Michael. Post title via Dorothy Parker.
* Which isn’t to say you can never use This in a name. Compare, for example, This Into That, the name of a small business in Berkeley that transforms old books into clever and useful objects such as clocks and key holders.
Also ill advised: a wordmark that makes it all too easy to read the name as “anus.”
I have anticipated your questions: No, “Onus” is not the name of the CEO/founder. (Her name is Kimberly Lee.) And it’s not “on us,”as in “The first visit’s on us!” I phoned the office: “Onus” rhymes with “bonus,” of which there is none to be found in the name.
Some names are born bad, others achieve badness, and still others have badness thrust upon them. Here are four bad names, each bad in its own tragic, annoying, or inept way.
There is simply no excuse for the spelling of Ketchuppp.
According to TechCrunch, “Ketchuppp wants to help you meet up with the people you actually like spending time with on a regular basis (or did before social media ate your social life) — and do so in person, not digitally.” (Imagine!) Evidently the founders fell in love with the “catch up” idea, never considered any other name directions or asked for professional advice, and kept fiddling with the spelling until finally they found a dot-com domain for $5.99. (Ketchup.com is for sale; Ketchupp.com—at least the double P would have suggested “app”—redirects to Pinocc.io.) Bad strategy, bad name. And to make matters worse, the web copy repeatedly uses “Ketchuppp” as a verb, which risks genericizing the brand name.
(Also, “Not Just Another Social App” is an I-give-up tagline. Tell us what you are, not what you aren’t.)
Do some corporate or product names make you shudder and cringe? Are there names you find so annoying that you can’t bear even to utter them aloud?
I want to know about the names you hate, and why. Is it the sound of the word, its spelling, a personal association? Can a good product or stellar customer service overcome your aversion to a name?
For comparison, consider the related phenomenon of word aversion, the well-documented tendency of some people to detest certain words. (“Moist” is frequently cited.) Read Mark Liberman’s posts on Language Log (start here and follow the links) to learn more about word aversion.
Now leave a comment and tell us about the names that make you cringe.*
UPDATE: And, if you can, tell us why these names bother you.
* Commercial names only, please—companies and products. Let’s leave baby names out of the discussion.
Zen names notwithstanding, it looks like Y is the new Z. Last week I wrote about names that substitute Y for I, and I just recently I discovered a new double-Y name, Swayy. It’s a startup that “brings you the best content to easily share with your audience and followers, based on their interests and engagement.” Is the name meant to be pronounced with a plaintive ayy? Or is it just another case of “We rejiggered the spelling to get a cheap domain”?
Speaking of Sway(y), here’s your rhumba interlude.
There’s an asterisk after “We produce the engaging content your brand deserves”; the clarifying footnote reads “Deserves, in a good way.” Yes, “deserve” can flip its meaning—“Shame on you; you had it coming” or “You’re a winner!”—as I noted in my June column for the Visual Thesaurus, “The Ads We Deserve.”
I love a name with a good story and a clever double meaning, which is why I’m so pleased by Rich Brilliant Willing, “America’s premier contemporary lighting and furniture design manufacturer.” The company was founded in 2007 by three RISD graduates whose surnames are—pay attention now—Richardson, Brill, and Williams.
Another name that pleased me: she++, “a Stanford-based community for innovative women in technology.” The name is a pun on the programming language C++. I love the logo, too.
Read more about “plus” in branding in my April column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Shall We Plus?”
Finally, here’s your bad name of the week: Twibfy, a dopey and nearly unpronounceable name for a company that calls itself “an inspirational platform.” (Translation: Pinterest wannabe.) You won’t find the name story on the Twibfy website, but on Twitter a company spokesperson said it’s an acronym (!) for “The World Is Beautiful From us to You.” (Random capitalization and awkward syntax sic). When you search for “Twibfy,” Google asks whether you mean “Twiggy.” That spells twouble. (Hat tip: Catchword.)