If your brand name is telling an inappropriate story—possibly even offending or angering people in your audience—would you want to change it?
The answer seems obvious. But recent news stories suggest that intransigence and a tin ear sometimes trump ethics and common sense.
Yes, I’m talking about the Washington Redskins (football) and the Cleveland Indians (baseball), long-established names once again making news for something other than athletic feats. I’m also talking about a newer, smaller brand that’s been in hot water for reasons that may not be apparent to non-Hawaiians: Hula, an app for promoting STD awareness and prevention.
“Redskins” is a slur against Native Americans. “Indians” is more neutral, but the team mascot, “Chief Wahoo,” is a cringe-inducing cartoon stereotype.
Chief Wahoo, mascot of the Cleveland Indians.
And hula is much more than grass skirts and undulating hips: to native Hawaiians it’s a sacred ritual.
The smallest of the world’s dog breeds was chosen over four other finalists in a “Name The Team” contest that garnered over 5,000 submissions, triumphing over Aardvarks, Buckaroos, Desert Gators and Sun Dogs. …
El Paso general manager Brad Taylor said Chihuahuas was chosen as the team name because they “represent fun and are fiercely loyal.” The region’s fans were able to submit names through the team’s website. The list was narrowed based on creativity, marketability, fun, relevance to El Paso’s unique character and the ability to trademark the name.
“El Pasoans played a significant role in identifying our new team name – they attended focus groups, suggested several hundred different names, and voted in record numbers for all the names,” said Alan Ledford, president of MountainStar Sports Group.
¡Ay, chihuahua! Just because they crowdsourced the name doesn’t mean the whole crowd approves. “What a complete slap in the face to all of us El Pasoans!!!” lamented Scott Ziegler in a comment to the MiLB article. “#Padres must be thinking it will motivate players to get to the Majors quickly,” tweet-snorted Kenneth Dame. As of yesterday afternoon, more than 8,000 people had signed a Change.org petition asking MountainStar Sports Group to “not only strongly reconsider the name of our city's baseball team, but allow our taxpayers to vote on the final name, not just simply ‘recommend’ ideas for the name.”
Here’s my own dos pesos: A polarizing name—even a negative name—can make a strong brand. And “Chihuahuas” scores well compared to some other baseball-team names. Padres? Sexist and faithist! Indians? Racist! Two major-league teams are named for socks. Socks! (I do, however, tip my cap to the Amsterdam-Gloversville-Johnstown Hyphens.) By contrast, the association of Chihuahuas with “small and feisty”—feisty comes from feist, “a small, belligerent dog”—seems appropriate and engaging.
“A Meticulous Metric of Team Names.” Embiggen (and order the poster.)
Then there’s the international-friendship potential: Why couldn’t the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, name its baseball team the El Pasos?
It’s Portmanteauber! But first, let’s welcome the return of the Name of the Year Tournament, “a celebration of unconventional names and the people who wear them.” After a 30-year run, NOTY’s originators stepped down in 2012; the tournament is now run “by two recent graduates of a university near Chicago” with “boring names” who are carrying on the tradition under a new URL. This year’s brackets include Hurricane Weathers, Fancy English, and Leila Bossy-Nobs. Go forth and vote!
“One of my biggest language pet peeves is the phrase ‘That’s not a word’,” writes James Callan, a content strategist and linguistics aficionado in Seattle. So he launched the Nixicon “to find and retweet people on Twitter who claimed that something isn’t a word.” In less than a week he’d discovered and circulated more than 200 “not a word” tweets.
A few days after starting this, one thing is clear: people really hate irregardless, ain't, and mines.
As for the Nixicon name, James says it’s “a portmanteau of ‘nix’ (meaning ‘no’) and ‘lexicon’.”
Speaking of non-words and portmanteaus, in May 2012 a group of lexicographers, poets, and authors coined “phubbing”—a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”—to describe “the phenomenon of ignoring people in front of you in favor of paying attention to your phone,” according to an article in Advertising Age. Since then, the ad agency McCann Melbourne has been seeding the word—on Facebook and the StopPhubbing website, among other platforms—as a way to create interest in, and sell more copies of, a new edition of Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. The Wordability blog (which slightly misrepresents the word’s origin) calls phubbing “the best new word of the year” and says the word’s rise demonstrates “all that is good about modern word formation.”
Watch Macquairie’s video about the birth and spread of “phubbing.”
Why do some invented words—gobbledygook, blurb, and smog, for example—catch on? Ralph Keyes writes in The American Scholar that “need and usefulness” and the ability to “capture a widespread sensibility” are key indicators. So is playfulness: “A remarkable number of terms we use today originated in the speech bubbles and captions of cartoonists,” Keyes observes.
Thirty days hath Septaper? In Word Routes, Ben Zimmer looks at “the financial word of the moment,” taper, and how it gave rise to the portmanteaus Septaper (a gradual slowdown of bond-buying in September) and Octaper (ditto, for October). “September through December seem to lend themselves to creative blending,” Ben writes, “perhaps because the names form a prosodic pattern: each is a three-syllable sequence with a stressed middle syllable (i.e., an amphibrach) and ends in -er.” My own “portmonthteau” sightings include Socktober, Sharktober, OAKtober (celebrating the Oakland A’s), and Archtober (pronounced, perplexingly, ark-tober). (And see my 2012 post on X-toberfest.)
Hostess Brands Inc., the 82-year-old snack-foods company based in Irving, Texas, announced today that it will close its plants and fire all 18,000 of its workers. The company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January. The corporate website says the company “was forced by a Bakers Union strike” to shut down. The union says the claim is false.
Hostess—founded in Missouri in 1930 as Interstate Bakeries Corporation—had been the largest wholesale baker and distributor of baked goods in the United States. Its many brands included Wonder Bread, Dolly Madison, Ho Hos, Sno Balls, Ding Dongs, and Colombo, but the company’s most famous product name may have been Twinkies, the “golden sponge cake with creamy filling” with a seemingly limitless shelf life.
According to a Chicago Tribune story, the first Twinkies “bounced out of the ovens at Continental Baking Co.” in River Forest, Illinois, in 1930:
Plant manager James Dewar was looking to create a cheap, two-for-a nickel snack. So he grabbed some shortcake pans and got cookin’. Dewar got the name from a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes. He shortened it to Twinkies, and the rest is snack food history.
That history took a grim turn during the 1979 trial of Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and a fellow supervisor, Harvey Milk. White’s defense lawyers argued that their client’s mental capacity had been damaged by his excessive consumption of junk food. No specific food product was ever mentioned in the courtroom, but reporters coined “Twinkie defense” as shorthand for the argument. The term survives “as a derisive term for an improbable legal defense” (Wikipedia).
The sausage-shaped character on the Twinkies package has a name: Twinkie the Kid. A registered trademark since 1971, it was used in commercials and in collectible products, which are probably going to become a little more collectible.
Today’s Chicago Tribune has a slide show of 15 “iconic” Hostess products, including Holsum bread, which at one point used this dandy slogan:
“If you had a million dollars you couldn’t buy better bread.”
According to a Wikipedia entry, “Holsum” was used by many retail bakeries in the early 20th century, when whimsical phonetic brand spellings were all the rage. (See my August 2011 Visual Thesaurus column, “Phood for Thought,” for more examples.) In 1908, the W.E. Long Company of Chicago acquired exclusive rights to the name. Holsum bread is still sold; its mascot, Mr. Slice, was created in 1976.
For your frittering pleasure: a Flickr set of “weird advertising characters” that’s a nostalgiafest, a kitschapalooza, and a bizarrorama. Step right up and see the seppuku-ing pig, the martini-sipping pink poodle, the shockingly un-PC Frito Bandito, the Doggie Diner doggie, the Chicken of the Sea mermaid, and much, much more.
Including, I’m happy to report, a trove of “mister” names and mascots.
But a jogging, sunglasses-wearing, pain-arrow-emanating brain for a mascot? Ouch.
Those colors!I'm seeing an aura ...
Besides, the whole concept of sponsoring a running race to raise money for headache research strikes me as inappropriate. Wouldn’t pounding through Golden Gate Park with hundreds of sweaty fellow-joggers be an automatic migraine trigger? For next year’s event, I propose an alternative to Miles for Migraine—say, Several Hours Lying Absolutely Still in a Quiet, Darkened Room (with Plenty of Strong Drugs) for Migraine.
Fanciful word lore gets passed around and sometimes gets accepted as the gospel truth. Companies like Keds, Haggar, and Hershey simply take that impulse to come up with lexical just-so stories and provide an institutional backing that encourages the myths to persist as a point of corporate pride.
At one time, Jamba Juice asserted that its name was derived from an African word meaning “to celebrate.” The company published this specious claim on its Web site, raising the eyebrows of linguists who wanted to know which of the 1800 languages spoken in Africa was the original source. In Umbundu, “jamba” translates to “elephant.” In Swahili, it means “to fart.”