I haven’t blogged for a while about startupnamesthat endin -ly, but that doesn’t mean the trend is ebbing. On the contrary, I’m up to 153 – one hundred fifty-three! – pins on my “Names That End in -ly” Pinterest board.* The most recent additions: Fastly (“real-time caching”), Warmly (an alarm-clock app), and Scopely (a mobile gaming platform).
Also on Pinterest:
Shop at X & Y! (two-part retail names joined by an ampersand or plus sign)
Longtime readers may recall my 2008 post about the British energy-drink brand Pussy (“Bad Brand Names: The New Champion!”). Now the UK’s advertising regulator has ruled on complaints about Pussy ads. The deadpan ruling is worth your time for passages like this one:
We noted that the slogan in ad (a) stated “The drink’s pure, it's your mind that's the problem” and considered that strongly suggested that the term “pussy” had a secondary meaning which was not “pure” and was a “problem”, and considered that slogan reinforced the colloquial meaning of “pussy” to those older children or implied that that secondary, colloquial meaning was in some way impolite or even offensive or sexually explicit.
You’d think a new debit card with “Visa Paywave” would involve some sort of waving activity, right? Gotcha! “Sometimes a product name can sound really good, but it can send the wrong signals,” sighs Australian linguablogger Superlinguo.
Remember Shpock (“Your mobile yard sale for beautiful things”) and Shpoonkle (“Justice you can afford!”)? This farshtinkener naming trend is still trending. I recently learned about Schmap, which calls its product “the world’s first Twitter-powered city guides.” (The official spelling includes two shoe-print exclamation marks, but I refuse to play that game.)
Schmap isn’t new: the company was founded in 2004 in Carrboro, North Carolina, and published its first guides in 2006. A TechCrunch article about Schmap’s new Demographics Pro service, which provides detailed reports on Twitter followers, brought it to my attention.
Here’s the thing about these Sh- and Sch- names: they aren’t neutral. For starters, Sh- and especially Shm- suggest “Yiddish.” Those phonemes show up at the beginning of dozens of Yiddish words; my copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish has 42 pages of sh- words, from shabbes to shvitzer. (The sch- spelling, Rosten noted elsewhere, is German rather than Yiddish.)
I’m sure Carrboro, North Carolina – “the Paris of the Piedmont” – is a lovely place, but I somehow doubt that you’ll hear a lot of Yiddish along its leafy boulevards.
It gets worse, because sh- and shm- carry a stigma: They’re “prefatory sounds, of mockery or dismissal, that ‘pooh-pooh’ the word they prefix,” writes Rosten:
A great many words of mockery and aspersion, words that jeer, sneer and scorn…begin with sh-: shlemiel, shlimazl, shloomp, shmegegge, shmo, shmuck, shnorrer.
Shm- words show up so frequently in snarky, Yiddish-inflected rhymes that linguists have a name for the category: shm- reduplication, “a form of reduplication in which the original word or its first syllable (the base) is repeated with the copy (the reduplicant) beginning with shm- (sometimes schm-), pronounced /ʃm/.” As the old punchline has it, “Oedipus-Shmoedipus – as long as he loves his mother!” (See also Libros Schmibros and Burglar Schmurglar. )
So nu? What’s with this fad-shmad? Here’s my guess: A generation of entrepreneurs has been influenced by schwag and schwing, two made-up words that caught on about 20 years ago. I wrote about this effect in a 2011 post, “Swag and Schwag”:
Sometime in the early 1990s swag became schwag, “perhaps after words of Yiddish origin” such as shmuck, says the OED—although Yinglish schlock (something of inferior quality) seems an equally likely influence. (Of course, one must never underestimate the influence of Wayne’s World [1988-1994] and schwing.)Besides being a synonym for bad marijuana, schwag can also be a modifier meaning simply “inferior.”
I appreciated a well-crafted playful name as much as the next wordslinger. But if you want your brand to be taken seriously, be careful with those fancy-shmancy coinages.
Who’s minding the store at Target? A week ago Consumerist reported that the retailer was selling a plus-size dress in a color unflatteringly called Manatee Gray. (A manatee is also known as a sea cow.) This week there’s been a cross-lingual dustup over a sandal style called “Orina,” which means “urine” in Spanish.
Image from Yahoo Shine. Target quickly removed the product page and is said to be renaming the style.
“Does no one speak Spanish at Target HQ or have access to this thing we call Google?” asked Consumerist reporter Mary Beth Quirk. No and no, apparently. Target’s initial defense was that “orina” means “peaceful” in Russian. As though Russian rather than Spanish were the second-most-spoken language in the United States, after English.
I learned about Target’s number-one problem via a tweet from Mighty Red Pen, who also sent me a link to Yahoo Shine’s coverage of the story. Full marks to senior editor Lylah M. Alphonse, whose recounting of other notable naming gaffes sets the record straight on the Chevy Nova “no-go” myth.
Target isn’t the only business with Orina issues. A similar etymological fallacy led to the naming of Café Orina in the Bay Area city of Concord, California.
When Maura Storace sent me the photo, she commented, “I wonder if the coffee they serve is amber-colored?”
The café’s About Us page includes this earnest explanation:
Meaning of Orina Its source is Eirene, a Greek name meaning “Peace.”
Narrative: This was the name of the Greek goddess of peace. Until the 20th century, it was commonly pronounced in three syllables (i-REE-nee).
Very nice, but there are almost 700,000 native Spanish speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only a relative handful of Greek speakers.
Moral: Check several bilingual dictionaries before committing to a lovely-sounding exotic name. And know your market.
And as long as this post is already in the toilet, here’s Kmart’s new TV spot, which – incongruously for a retailer not known for creative marketing – takes positive glee in its potty humor. The much-repeated tagline is “Ship my pants.”
For more on the British idiom “taking the piss” – not to be confused with “taking a piss” – read this.
I wish an equivalent amount of imagination and research had gone into creating the product’s belabored name: Belāggles.
The macron over the A is telling us that the name is pronounced “belay-gles,” as in belay plus goggles. But the macron-ized word appears only in the logo: everywhere else – in the web content, in media reports, on Twitter and Facebook – it’s plain old Belaggles. And my brain does not interpret “Belaggles” as “Belay-gles.”
English may be a “shifty whore,” as lexicographer Kori Stamper has so delicately put it, but our written language does have some commonly acknowledged rules that most of us have internalized. One of those rules says that when a vowel precedes a doubled consonant, it takes a short sound: waggle, gaggle, bedraggle, straggle, haggle. Slapping a diacritical mark over that vowel doesn’t change the rule; in fact, I bet most of the population doesn’t see the little horizontal line as anything more than an embellishment.
(Besides, even when I pronounce it right, the name sounds comically wrong. Want some shmear with those belāggles? Stop belāggling me! My new puppy is a Labrador-beagle mix – a belāggle!)
The pronunciation isn’t the only thing that feels forced about the name. I found myself working altogether too hard to decipher the peculiar Gs in the logo: they look like a hybrid of a 4 and a 9, but they may be mountain peaks on sled runners. Or sailboats.
Mostly, though, the problem with Belāgglesis a familiar one: the Awkward Portmanteau, aka the strenuous mashing-up of words to create a descriptive name. The strategy is misguided – your name should suggest, not describe – and the tactic is amateurish. Instead of jamming “belay” and “goggles” together, I’d have aimed for a name that communicates a benefit: reaching the top, seeing vertically, saving your neck.
That’s what I asked when I encountered Mycestro. I saw it as a three-syllable name, because my brain picked out “my” before it performed any further analysis. I was stumped by “cestro,” though. Ancestor? Incest?
Even reading in TechCrunch that Mycestro is a “3D mouse for your fingertips that you’ll look funny using” didn’t help. Not until I listened to the inventor, Nick Mastandrea, narrate a Kickstarter video did I realize that Mycestro is a misspelled portmanteau of mice and maestro. It’s meant to be parsed myce-stro and pronounced maestro. The reasoning, TechCrunch says, is that when you use the device “it looks like you’re conducting your own private orchestra.”
An intriguing image, and I wish Mr. Mastandrea had explored it further instead of falling in love with that misleading, wince-inducing portmanteau.
As I’ve said many times, portmanteau names rarely succeed (see Infegy, Blellow, Shpock, Rapiscan, InnoCentive, Smorn, and others). Mycestro joins the Hall of Failed Portmanteaus – the Halfaport – with several strikes against it: We rarely speak of computer mice in the plural, the weird myce spelling suggests something mushroomy, and the ce-st combination in the middle of the word confounds the tongue. And, as I’ve already noted, it’s very difficult to un-see the first-person possessive pronoun in the first syllable.
Four company names that are not as amusing, meaningful, or intelligible as their creators assume.
Congratulations to Smorn on exceeding its Kickstarter goal before the deadline. Maybe the founders will set aside some of the excess cash for a new name, because the current one—a regrettable portmanteau of smart and horn—is doing them no favors. I guarantee you that no one will decipher “smart” from “sm-”or “horn” from “-orn.” When even TechCrunch says your product “is cooler than it sounds,” you know the name’s a problem. The product seems terrific; it deserves a smart name, not two unhelpful letters from the word smart. P.S. “Glorp”—for the glow-in-the-dark version—is no better. (For more on bad names that start with sm-, see this post about Smeg and this one about Smencils.)
If I gave you four chances to guess what Ecwid is, I bet you’d lose—even if I showed you the logo.
European Community Wealth Information Department? Something about equitable? Something in Welsh? Ecological baby buggies for widdle tiny sextuplets?
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. This terrible name (for a maker of online shopping-cart software) turns out to be another regrettable portmanteau: a blend of “e-commerce” and “widgets.”
Let’s review: 1) “ec” does not connote “e-commerce” to anyone, 2) “wid” does not connote “widget” to anyone, and 3) “widgets” is very 2005.
Maybe “Ecwid” seemed brilliant in Russia, where the company was founded, but it’s unfathomable, not to mention icky-sounding, in the US. Now that the company has offices in Southern California, it’s time for a deep rethink.
By the way, when I tweeted about the Ecwid name last month, the company responded defensively:
@fritinancy good or bad, it’s unique, and we reap lots of benefits from that. And so do our customers too.
μBiome uses the Greek letter μ—the symbol for “micro”—in its logo, but the English letter “u” everywhere else (ubiome.com; “uBiome is the world’s first effort to map the human microbiome with citizen science”).
So is the company name pronounced “microbiome” or “you-biome”? Or “mee-biome” (μ in modern Greek)? Or “myoo-biome” (μ in English)? It looks as though μBiome has learned nothing from the confusing example of μTorrent (scroll down to #4).
When your company is called White Dental Supply and you don’t sell dental supplies, people naturally get confused. No matter how many times you say “We’re an Internet marketing company!” they still ask for floss samples. So you change the name. To Pitooey!With an exclamation mark. Because it sounds like what you do after you brush and rinse? No, because it’s “the language of penguins.”
The name Pitooey! promotes the strong social media and mobile marketing background of our company. In 2013 we will be pivoting into a new industry with a suite of exciting products and services, and this name change reflects this exciting transformation.