I enjoy a little word puzzle as much as, or maybe more than, the next public-transit user. But two Bay Area bus-shelter signs, both for worthy nonprofit organizations, go beyond puzzling to confounding.
“Do You Really Want the City 7 x 7 x 7?” asks this poster. I stood in front of it for a couple of minutes, trying to stitch together “Do you really want the city” and “7 x 7 x 7.” What could it possibly mean?
You’re cruising along at 25 mph in Oakland when you glimpse a billboard across the street. You see it for about two seconds, across three lanes of traffic, before you drive by. What registers? What’s being advertised?
“Siri, find me a place above 50°.” Broadway near 51st Street.
I’ll tell you what I saw: an ad for Siri, the iPhone voice app. Or maybe, on second thought, an ad for kayaks. In, I dunno, Alaska.
It wasn’t until a third and slower drive-by that I caught the much smaller type in the lower right-hand corner: “Real summer. Real close.” And beneath that line, in even smaller type—at last—the name of the advertiser: GoTahoeNorth.com.
In other words, this is the 2014 edition of the you-poor-suffering-San-Franciscans campaign that GoTahoeNorth introduced last year. The first time around, I said I liked the catchy slogan (“Winter, Spring, Winter, Fall”). What went wrong this year? Simple: the agency led us astray by name-checking an unrelated brand. After we see the “Siri” billboard we aren’t thinking about Lake Tahoe, we’re thinking about iPhones.
Moral: It’s not enough to come up with what you think is a clever line. You have to remember the context as well. What works in a static medium like print may not work in the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t environment of outdoor advertising. When you’re pitching to a moving target, you need to make sure they see your name, not some other brand’s, writ large.
Tangent: The Tahoe North folks have a harder sell this year, because here in the San Francisco Bay Area we’re enjoying an exceptionally warm summer. Last week daytime temperatures climbed into the 80s in San Francisco, and one overnight low in the middle of the week was the warmest on record for that date—a near-tropical 63°. (It’s more July-typical for San Francisco’s daytime high temperatures to be in the low 60s.)
Here’s an even weirder tidbit. Where I swim in San Francisco Bay, we’ve been recording water temperatures of 66° and 67°, about four degrees above normal. Some veteran bay swimmers have been overheard grumbling that the water’s too damn warm. Not I: after two weeks of 49° water in January, I’m happy to revel in this quasi-Hawaiian treat.
So, Siri, I’m happily staying put. See you next year, when I hope you’ve counseled GoTahoeNorth on a better way to sell its summer weather to us flatlanders.
Apothecary: A drugstore or pharmacy; a person who prepares and sells drugs or medicines.
When apothecary entered English in the mid-1300s, it had a more general meaning than “druggist.” Its late-Latin source, apothēcārius, meant “store-keeper”; the Latin word came from Greek apothēkē, “a repository or storehouse.” That older meaning persists in two close linguistic cousins of apothecary: Spanish bodega (a small grocery store) and French boutique (a small retail shop).
Lately, though, there’s a subtle but noticeable uptick, especially in certain quarters—including my own Oakland environs—characterized by a critical hipster mass. And its meaning appears to be reverting to the medieval one.
Hog’s Apothecary, which opened on 40th Street in September 2013, is “a gastropub where beer and sausage rule,” according to a November 2013 review in Oakland magazine:
[J]ust as a pharmacy serves an array of cures for ailments, so Hog’s Apothecary serves a number of “cures” to its patrons. [Co-owner John] Streit says, “The idea is that when you make sausage or make bacon, you put a cure on the meat. And we have an array of drinks, and some people rely on that as their cure.”
I noted a couple of other interesting items about Hog’s Apothecary.
It uses the recently coined “Jewel Box” appellation to refer to its micro-neighborhood, which is near Emerald, Ruby, Garnet, and Opal streets. Like most Oaklanders, I’ve always referred to the area as the Temescal.
It uses old-timey design and typography to match old-timey “apothecary.”
Just a few blocks from Hog’s is Homestead Apothecary, which opened in March 2013. Homestead Apothecary (no relation to Homestead Restaurant, about half a mile away) fits the popular image of an apothecary: it sells medicinal herbs and offers “community centered holistic education.”
A couple of neighborhoods over, on Grand Avenue, you’ll find Ancestral Apothecary, dedicated to “remembering and reclaiming folk & indigenous medicine.”
And a few blocks up Grand, the stylish and pricey McMullen boutique includes an “apothecary” section on its website for lotions and potions. (The online cupboard is currently bare.)
Apothecary also shows up in Brooklyn, the Oakland of New York. In addition to druggist-style apothecaries like Bridge Apothecary and Heights Apothecary, I spotted a haircare/cosmetics apothecary in the Woodley & Bunny salonand an apothecary section in the By Brooklyn website where you can buy soaps, candles, scents, and lotions—all made in Brooklyn, of course.
I looked it up, and it turns out the original quote is a little different, although it’s frequently misrepresented: It has to do with “the mills of the gods” rather than “the wheels of justice,” and it goes all the way back to ancient Greece. In his poem “Retribution,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow singularized the deity:
Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience he stands waiting, With exactness grinds he all
But guess what? This is totally beside the point! Because the name of the shop has nothing to do with Longfellow or the Greek Skeptics. It’s an eponym. The owner’s name is—wait for it—Justice Baxter.
Also in the 1980s, “Justice” began showing up as a girls’ name. It hasn’t been as popular for girls, but that graph line is still rising.
Baby-name experts have categorized Justice among the new “virtue names”—21st-century counterparts to the Faith, Hope, Charity, Patience, and Comfort so popular with the Puritans. Other “new virtue names” include Logic, Rhyme, Reason, Destiny, Curiosity, Savvy, and, yes, Virtue.
A female Justice—17-year-old Justice Toliver—was in the news last week because of a tragedy: She was the victim of a fatal shooting in her Oakland, California, apartment. The prime suspect, her 14-year-old brother, turned himself in to police yesterday.
A word of warning: Don’t even think about naming a child of either sex “Justice” if you live in New Zealand. Since 2001, according to Harper’s Index (August 2013), New Zealand’s Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages has rejected baby names 311 times. Sixty-two of those rejections have been for the name “Justice.”
Yes, that headline would read “Justice Denied in New Zealand.”
Our inspiration is two distinctly American writers known for their rugged individualism, sense of adventure and wild prose, Jack London, born in Oakland, and Jack Kerouac, native of Lowell, Mass., home to many of America textile mills during the Industrial Revolution.
Minor correction: Jack London spent his childhood in Oakland, but he was born (in 1876, as John Griffith London) across the bay in San Francisco.
Most jacks derive from the English proper name Jack, including the first one, jakke, “a mechanical device,” which first appeared in the late 14th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary has an extensive entry on jack and its variations. Here’s an excerpt:
The proper name was used in Middle English for “any common fellow” (mid-14c.), and thereafter extended to various appliances replacing servants (1570s). Used generically of men (jack-of-all-trades, 1610s), male animals (1620s, see jackass, jackdaw, etc.), and male personifications (1520s, e.g. Jack Frost, 1826).
As the name of a device for pulling off boots, from 1670s. The jack in a pack of playing cards (1670s) is in German Bauer “peasant.”* Jack shit “nothing at all” is attested by 1968, U.S. slang. The plant jack-in-the-pulpit is attested by 1837. Jack the Ripper was active in London 1888. The jack of Union Jack is a nautical term for “small flag at the bow of a ship” (1630s).
The verb sense—to hoist, to raise—was originally an Americanism from the mid-19th century, as was the figurative sense—“to increase prices, etc.” (1904). The Online Etymology Dictionary again:
Jack off (v.) “to masturbate” is attested from 1916, probably from jack (n.) in the sense of “penis.”
Also covered in the jack entry: Jack o’ lantern, jackknife, jackhammer, jackboot, crackerjack, jackanapes, and jack-in-the-box.
The Oxford English Dictionary has many additional entries for jack.Monterey Jack cheese is named for David Jacks (originally David Jack), a Scottish-born dairy rancher who first made the cheese in Monterey County, California, in the 1880s. Jack as a slang term for money is an Americanism from the late 19th century. And since at least 1930, the verb to jack has meant “to take illegally, to steal”; this jack is a shortening of the earlier hijack (origin unknown).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the children’s game known as jacks comes from jack-stones, originally check-stones, “a small smooth round pebble.”
Jacks game from How Retro, which also gives the game’s history and rules.
See also my posts on the “Jacked” naming trend: here and here.
In the rest of the U.S., November 29 is this year’s Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. (In fact, I’ve been seeing Black Friday promotions for weeks.) Here in Oakland, though, we’re a little more colorful.
The name Plaid Friday was conceived from the idea of weaving the individual threads of small businesses together to create a strong fabric that celebrates the diversity and creativity of independent businesses. Plaid Friday is the relaxing and enjoyable alternative to the big box store “Black Friday,” and is designed promote both local and independently owned businesses during the holidays.
I’m supporting these worthy endeavors and encourage you to join me:
1. Schwa Fire is a new digital publication “that will marry language geekery with long-form journalism,” according to its founder, the journalist, linguist, and author Michael Erard. (I wrote about Michael’s first book, Um…, in 2007.) Here’s how he describes the project:
I’ve been saying that Schwa Fire is going to be like This American Life, but for language. We’ll look at life through a linguistic lens, and look at lives and circumstances in the language world.
Stories will be relevant to the times and accountable to the facts, and you won’t have to become a linguist to understand them. We don’t profess; we inquire. We’ll commission pieces from people who know both story-telling and language because they've been involved in both for years. This expertise will allow them to dive into the language-related implications of a story while keeping readers asking “What happened next?”
Yes, Schwa Fire will pay its contributors! Hurrah!
Michael is raising money for the first issues via Kickstarter, and he’s off to a promising start. You can learn more and chip in as much as you’d like on the Kickstarter page.
Why “Schwa Fire”? Michael Erard explains: “Because everybody likes to say ‘schwa’ (which, by the way, is the name of a mid-central vowel that’s usually not stressed in English)” and because “if you’re reading Schwa Fire, it’s because you love all aspects of speech, language, and communication. ‘Fire’ points to passion and enthusiasm.”
2. Word Detective is one of the longest running (since 1995!) and most enjoyable online sources of information about words and language. Check out, for example, this recent post about Formica, a brand name that has nothing to do with ants or Ender’s Game. Evan Morris, the sole author of Word Detective (and author of an excellent little book about brand names, From Altoids to Zima), has kept up his monthly publication schedule despite being diagnosed about seven years ago with primary progressive multiple sclerosis ... and despite the loss of revenue from newspapers and magazines that no longer pay their contributors. (Unlike Schwa Fire!)
3. GoldieBloxis an Oakland toy company with a twist: Its founder and CEO, Debbie Sterling, is an engineer who wants more girls to get excited about math and engineering. So she set about “disrupting the pink aisle”—all those princess dolls and costumes in the toy store—with her clever and appealing construction sets for girls. “We don’t have a national shortage of princesses,” Debbie Sterling points out, “but we do have a national shortage of engineers.”
Here’s the best part: GoldieBlox is one of four finalists in Intuit’s “Small Business Big Game” contest, which will award a free ad during the 2014 Super Bowl* broadcast (worth something like $4 million) to the winner. The other contenders—a Minnesota egg business, a North Carolina dog-treat company, and a business in Idaho that makes “natural dairy compost”—are all worthy in their own ways, I’m sure. But GoldieBlox gets my vote because it’s local, it’s educational, and it supports girls. Not for nothing, I love the GoldieBlox name.
You can vote once a day through midnight (PST) December 1. Go GoldieBlox!
Back in March 2009 I wrote about the shifting meaning of “urban,” from the standard dictionary definition (“of the city”) to something tinged with politics and sociology. The emerging meaning of “urban,” I wrote, often translates to “dominated by a racial minority.” (@UrbanEnglish, for example, is the Twitter handle for something that calls itself Ghetto Translations™.) Although I mentioned a few brands with “urban” in their names—Urban Dictionary, Urban Outfitters, National Urban League—I focused on lower-case “urban,” puzzling over phrases such as “Oakland, like most urban cities…”
Since then I’ve continued to track the spread of “urban.” I’m still seeing redundant-seeming usages like this one, from Maggie Koerth-Baker’s 2012 book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us: “Merriam isn’t a small town. … Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city.” (Emphasis added.) But what’s really gotten my attention is an explosion of upper-case “urban” in brand names.
Granted, all of these brands originated in cities and cater to city dwellers. But that alone doesn’t explain the popularity of “urban” in their names. Rather, I suspect it’s a meme—a viral phenomenon. “Urban” here is shorthand for “cool” and “savvy”; with few exceptions, there are no racial overtones.
I should know better by now, but I’m always surprised when I see so many copycat names, especially in a concentrated geographical area. It’s as though each of these business owners felt compelled to tap out the same code, fearful that even a slight deviation (“urbane,” say, or just “urb”) would break the spell.
Here’s a far-from-complete rundown of the urban names I’ve noticed.
Many naming briefs stipulate that “negative words” be avoided. To be sure, there’s a risk to going negative with your company or product name. But sometimes the risk pays off. Consider Virgin: doesn’t the name suggest pilots with no experience? Or Caterpillar: huge machines and engines named for a tiny, destructive insect—seriously? Or Banana Republic: a small, politically unstable country governed by a dictator and dominated by a foreign interest? Yet each of those brands is dominant in its industry.
Here are three new names that embrace risk and cheerfully violate the no-negative-words “rule.”
This sign for this new wine shop and wine bar on Oakland’s Grand Avenue catches your attention with a word that seems meh. But is it really ordinary? Not exactly. “Ordinaire” has a specific meaning in wine lingo: vin ordinaire is inexpensive wine for everyday use. What seems negative at first is in fact enticing and relevant.
Speaking of meh, the definition of “mediocre” is “middling” or “average.” (The Latin and Greek roots of the word translate to “halfway up the mountain.”)
But Mediocre Laboratories is anything but ordinary. There’s the clever logo, for starters, with its tilted E and cracked beaker. There are the ringing quotations about mediocrity. (“A mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.” — Mary Kay Ash.) There’s the “careers” heading: “Be a Mediocre employee. We’re looking for people so good they don’t need to call themselves ninjas, gurus, or rockstars.”
Mediocre was founded by Matt Rutledge, who sold his previous company, Woot, to Amazon. “We really tried to lower expectations with the brand,” Rutledge told TechCrunch reporter Ryan Lawler. “The team drew inspiration from Ev Williams and Biz Stone’s Obvious Corporation,” Lawler reports, “but since ‘obvious’ was taken, they decided to set the bar low with ‘mediocre’ instead.”
In keeping with the laboratory theme, each Mediocre e-commerce “experiment” is code-named for a dead scientist—Libet, Frisch, Wöhler, Pavlov, and Jensen. (I’m guessing about the last one, but it seems like a reasonable conjecture.)
Mediocre is average, but Terrible? That’s really bad, right? Who’d want that word associated with a mobile-apps firm?
Well, take a look at Terrible Labs’ logo/mascot:
T-Rex here serves as a reminder that “terrible” didn’t always mean “bad”; it originally meant “awe-inspiring” or, yes, awesome. (From Terrible’s Twitter bio: “We build terribly awesome web & mobile web apps with Ruby on Rails, RubyMotion, and other stuff.”) You might also associate Terrible with enfant terrible, an outrageous or shocking person.
Terrible Labs does a terrific job—see early definitions of terrific—of grabbing our attention and making the right conceptual connection. I’d like to see better follow-through in the web content, which is tame and predictable. (“Passionate about creating great products” … “We help our clients turn great ideas into great products” … and many more instances of “we help,” which doesn’t sound T-Rexy at all.) I do like the Terrible Labs blog tagline, “Because Terrible Labs loves you,” and I can’t help admiring the name of one of Terrible’s team members, Trapper Markelz. Trapper!