“When Simon Tam dropped out of college in California and moved to Portland, Ore., to become a rock star, the last tangle he imagined falling into was a multiyear battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over his band’s name.” The trademark tussle over “The Slants,” which the USPTO has deemed “disparaging” and thus ineligible for protection. (For a more technical perspective, see this Brent Lorentz post at Duets Blog.)
The strange charm of cutthroat compounds like pickpocket, scarecrow, and, well, cutthroat: Stan Carey on these rare English words“that have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.” (I wonder how the newish fondleslab fits in?)
The 2014 Social Security Administration stats on baby names are out, and the Baby Name Wizard blog has discovered some interesting trends in the data. The biggest trend? What naming expert Laura Wattenberg calls “the great smoothing of American baby names”: goodbye “chunky” names (Jayden, Jessica), hello “silky,” vowel-rich names (Amanda, Mia, Noah, Liam).
Speaking of popular names, here’s a fun tool to discover what your “today baby name” would be, based on the ranking of your own name in the year you were born. The tools works backward too: If I’d been born in the 1890s, chances are I’d have been named Minnie. More than a time-waster, the tool can be a big help in character-naming. (May take a while for the tool to load.)
“She originally went by Flo White, then Lord of the Strings. She eventually settled on the Period Fairy. It was more straightforward.” A new ad from category-busing Hello Flo, which sells a Period Starter Kit to adolescent girls.
Ski-Doo, the snowmobile brand so widespread that it’s almost a generic term, was never meant to be called “Ski-Doo.” Its inventor, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, had named his creation “Ski-Dog,” because it was meant to replace a dogsled. As a 1992 article in Popular Mechanicsexplains: “Fortunately for Bombardier (pronounced bom-bar-dee-ay), an early brochure was misspelled and a winter legend was born.”
Bombardier, born in 1907 in the rural town of Valcourt, Quebec, had experimented with snow vehicles since he was a teenager. His first attempt, created when he was just 15, used a rear-mounted Model T engine and a wooden propeller. A 1935 prototype employed a sprocket-and-track assembly and floating suspension. In 1942 he founded Bombardier Recreational Products (now BRP); the company still has its headquarters in Valcourt but is now a multinational corporation that makes railway and aerospace parts, Evinrude outboard motors, and Can-Am all-terrain vehicles.
Ski-Dog wouldn’t have been a bad choice for the brand name, but as Ski-Doo the company benefits from the association with “skidoo” or “skiddoo”—to get away, to go out—an early-20th-century slang term that may have been derived from 19th-century “skedaddle.” It’s an appropriate association with fast-moving, terrain-defying vehicles—an association that carried over to the company’s aquatic brand extension Sea-Doo, launched in 1988. “Skidoo” is memorialized in the quaint phrase “23 skidoo,” about which Barry Popik’s Big Apple blog has the last word.
And as the 1992 Popular Mechanics story helpfully points out:
While the name of the most ubiquitous snowmobile was the result of a printer’s error, perhaps it wasn’t really a mistake. After all, there is a relationship between a dog and doo. Perhaps future historians will dig up the truth.
Here is Page 6 of Best Buy’s 2013/2014 furniture catalog, an expensive-looking proposition—30 pages, four colors, heavy paper stock—that’s distributed in retail stores.
I’ve boosted the photo’s contrast, but it may still be hard to read. Here’s a close-up:
“Lay back & relax.”
For the record, it should be Lie back & relax. (I’m not crazy about the ampersand, either, but Best Buy appears to be fond of it.)
Yes, yes: lay and lie, like other irregular verbs, are hard to keep straight. (Mostly for native English speakers. I’ve noticed that people for whom English is a second or third language have very little trouble remembering the conjugations.) Yes, even college-educated people say “lay back” (and “I laid back”) all the time. And yes, English will probably, someday, merge lie and lay—languages do that sort of thing all the time.*
But for now, we still have the lie/lay distinction. And we also hold published writing from a voice of authority** to a different standard than spoken utterances. I keep quiet when my Pilates instructor tells me to “lay back [sic] one vertebrae [sic] at a time,” as she does with impressive consistency, but I’d correct her if she wrote that sentence on her website and asked me to edit it.
Not only did Best Buy make an error so common any trained proofreader should have caught it, the company also missed an opportunity for a catchier, more alliterative headline: Recline and Relax.
Here’s Grammar Girl on lay and lie (and laid and lain). And here’s my own oversimplified mnemonic: lie has the same vowel sound as the stressed syllable of recline; lay has the same vowel sound as place.
* “When proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go” – Elmore Leonard—but he was referring to fictional narrative. Proper usage doesn’t get in the way of Best Buy’s message (“You need this $2,299 seating group”).
** Best Buy: 1,150 stores in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and China; $49 billion in revenue in 2012.
There are no bears in Trance. The word that’s wanted here is grisly.
Finally, a really big goof, as in several inches high:
The great Chicago writer and radio man spelled his last name Terkel (it’s correct in the text beneath the headline). The erroneous spelling appears in an exhibit on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower that’s been up for “about 14 years,” according to a Chicago Tribune story; no one mentioned the misspelling until this week, when media blogger Jim Romenesko published an item about it.
Stoker, the first English-language film from Korean director Park Chan-wook. A nod to Hitchcock – two shower scenes, an Uncle Charlie, a whistled motif – minus the wit and plus a lot of arty gore.
A new language quarterly, aptly called Babel, brings linguistics to a general audience without dumbing down the subject. Published at the University of Huddersfield (UK), the magazine covers “issues relating to many different human languages” – and some non-human ones, including, in the first issue, Venusian. I’m already looking forward to the second issue, which will include an article about “the secret linguistic history of brand names.”
I grew up in Los Angeles and always wondered why the Ralphs supermarket chain didn’t have an apostrophe in its name. Now, thanks to Los Angeles magazine, I know: the business was founded (in 1873, at Fifth and Hill streets) by George Ralphs.
“I sculpt baby names from love, from hatred, from the reality of this hellhole of a world that you’re forcing an innocent life to endure.” Bob Powers, artisanal baby namer, at McSweeney’s. Yes, he jests. Mostly. (Via Karen Wise.)
According to Helen Sword, author of a column for the New York Times and creator of something called the Writer’sDiet test, a “zombie noun” is any noun (proliferation, formation, indication) that “cannibalizes” a verb. Now linguistics grad student Josef Fruehwald, blogging at Val Systems, delivers an incisive counterpoint. “Ain’t nothing like exploiting the collective dysmorphia of a nation to push your quarter-baked usage decrees,” says he.
I had some errands nearby, so I stopped into the Title Nine store in Berkeley over the weekend to see what was new with this local brand.
A bit of background: Title Nine was founded in 1989, taking its name from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex to any person seeking the benefits of any federally funded education program. Title IX opened doors to girls and women who wanted to play sports in school; Title Nine sells non-technical sports gear and clothing. The company has 19 retail stores—none in malls, the website boasts—243 employees, and a manifesto.
Appropriately, there’s a lot of playful, you-go-girl energy in a Title Nine store. This poster typifies the spirit:
“You are so busted!” is very cute. The medallion touts the company’s “bravangelists”: also nice.
I actually laughed out loud at this sign displayed above the entrance to the bra department—excuse me, the “Home for Unruly Girls Support Center.”
So far, so good. By the evidence, Title Nine is a company that makes a big investment in copywriting, and that’s a good thing. The attention to words carries over into the dressing rooms—or so I thought until I encountered this sign:
“Have a Fit!” is fun. So are the other headings: Containment, Mind the Strap, Be Smooth, Know the Terrain, and Think Straight. Then I read the very last sentence: “The bra should lay straight.”
Aha! So Title Nine’s editorial department has an Achilles heel after all: the lay/lie fault. The bra should lie straight, if you please.
(Listen, I get that a lot of people mix up lay and lie, and in fact I tolerate “lay” for “lie” in casual speech. But I can’t condone its appearance in published prose. And that includes marketing copy: See my critiques of the Hanes Lay Flat Collar, the SpeedSleep ad, the Back2Life back-pain “solution.” This is why professional copyeditors were invented. They know this stuff. They can help.)
I picked up a fall catalog to see whether the dressing-room sign was anomalous. Nope: The error is even worse in the catalog (insert, page 7), where in addition to the lay/lie error we have a comma splice:
“The bra should lay straight, if it rides up, it’s still too loose.”
There needs to be a period—a colon would be OK, too—after “straight.”
I leafed through the catalog to distract myself from all this lay-ola. Unfortunately, my eye fell on an even bigger boo-boo—in a name with a trademark symbol, no less:
Page 19, fall catalog.
I was drawn to that “Wooliscious” headline because in all the time I’ve been tracking -licious compounds—see here, here, here, and here—I’d never come across a -liscious. It looked odd, and I wondered whether it was a clumsy attempt at a portmanteau with “luscious.” Nope again: In the product copy—and on the Web—the word is spelled “Woolicious.”
I’m guessing Title Nine’s lawyers have already pitched a fit over this mistake, so I’ll leave it at that.
In my crappy photo you can just barely make out the name of this garment: “The Swacket.” It’s “more than a sweater—not quite a jacket,” the copy says. Honestly, is that the best they could come up with? Because all I can think of is the poor sacrificial fracket.
I’ll have another post about Title Nine later this week.
If you, like me, see red when you find misspellings, errors of fact, and grammatical mistakes in published books, help is at hand. Typoze allows you to report typos online, thereby contributing to “improving the overall quality of published material.” I’ve done it; it’s easy and satisfying. My only question: Where do I report the typos in Typoze’s own web and blog content?
After 94 years, beloved spokeslegume Mr. Peanut finally, um, speaks. And he sounds a lot like Robert Downey, Jr. (Ad Broad.)
If you’d lived in Chaucer’s time, you’d have known what sort of work a cautioner, a pannarius, and a tapley did. Find definitions for those and other trade names on this fascinating list. Despite the list’s title, the names are not “Old English”; they’re old, and they’re from the British Isles, but their etymologies are variously French, Latin, German, and Middle English. (Via Kevin Smokler, aka Weegee.)
The New York Times blog Schott’s Vocab has been performing an invaluable service by reprinting archived entries from American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society. Here, from 1934, is one of my favorities: a glossary of shoe-salesman lingo. A brief excerpt: “The widths of the shoe, A, B, C, D, and E, are called Al, Benny, Charley, Dave, and Eddie. These names are used to conceal the size from the customer.”
The Gobbledygook Grader reveals how much of your writing (or a colleague’s) is ridden with “gobbledygook, jargon, clichés and over-used, hype-filled words.” Just copy and paste a passage into the window to receive your grade—and tips for improving it.
How do you pronounce Cthulhu? Linux? Mister Mxyzptlk? To the rescue, from Geekosystem, comes the ultimate geek pronunciation guide. Mister Mxyzptlk, by the way, is not to be confused with the hip New York store Mxyplyzyk, named for the same Superman character but spelled differently and pronounced “mix-ee-pliz-ik.” (Hat tip: Karen.)
When I travel, I turn into a brand anthropologist: I gawk at, and photograph, names and signs that locals take in stride. Last week’s brief trip to Portland via Coast Starlight was no exception.
TheStandard (yes, one word), a division of StanCorp Financial Group (of course), is an insurance company that may or may not be based in New York—the website is maddeningly vague. I’d never heard of it before last week.
What caught my attention was the tagline: “Positively different.” The blue flag emblem suggests the “banner, pennant” definition of standard, but the word has multiple meanings, and I couldn’t help being slightly puzzled: Isn’t the whole point of a standard that it’s positively the same at all times?
Food carts are at least as big a phenomenon in Portland as they are here in the Bay Area, with one major difference: Here the carts are nomadic; you need to follow them on Twitter to figure out where they’ll be heading next. In Portland, the carts are permanently parked along a couple of busy downtown sidewalks.
A small sampling of the dozens of food carts on Alder Street.
This takes a lot of the serendipitous fun out of the whole affair; but, on the other hand, it’s in keeping with Portland’s polite, orderly vibe. (Such courteous drivers!)
I saw a second Mr. in Southeast Portland; a friend was driving so I couldn’t shoot the sign, but I later found it online.
I’m sure top hats are a big hit with today’s prom-goers.
Mr. Formal operates stores in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Arizona; its slogan is “Tuxedos for All Generations.” Isn’t it cute the way the cross-bar on the F resembles a bow tie?
Finally, at the Portland Art Museum—the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest—I spotted this sign.
Photography is verboten, but the very nice security guard made an exception for me.
It seems to me that if you go to the effort and expense of building a center of modern & contemporary art, you could at the very least spell contemporary with all its syllables. And maybe spell out “and.”
I do, however, like the way the museum’s logo highlights “art”: