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.
Gefatke: A pancake made of chopped fish and grated potatoes. A portmanteau of gefilte (literally “stuffed”) fish and latke; both words are Yiddish in origin.
“We already have the Cronut, crookie and pretzel croissant,” writes Michele Henry, a staff reporter for the Toronto Star. “Why not the gefatke? Or is it a lafilte?”
Latkes, Henry reminds us, are traditionally eaten at Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights that ends this year at sundown December 24. “But, at most other times of the year, we lavish holiday tables with different goodies, including a sort of fish-loaf — shaped into pucks and poached — called gefilte fish. It’s an acquired taste.” (It’s also the perfect substrate for the hottest horseradish you can tolerate.)
Still, this nice Jewish girl thought we’d be remiss, in this age of hybrid foods, not to squash together two of my culture’s most storied dishes, turning gefilte fish and latke into gefatke (or, if you prefer, lafilte).
She enlisted Toronto chef, restaurateur “and member of the tribe” Anthony Rose to realize her vision. Then her Star colleague tweaked it just a bit, adding some Thai fish sauce for a little extra flavor. (Recipe here.)
As a portmanteau, gefatke lacks the recognizability of last year’s Thanksgivukkah. The inclination is to rhyme the stressed second syllable with cat, which suggests an unwelcome (though probably not inaccurate) connection with dietary fat; latke, by contrast, rhymes roughly with plot-keh. (The vowel sound in ke is a schwa.) The alternative, lafilte, is just too Frenchy for this dish.
The recipe, however, sounds delish. If you’re in New York, you may want to make your gefatkes (or whatever you call them) with artisanalgefilte fish from the nicely named Gefilteria. Or you can make your own gefilte fish from this recipe, courtesy of the equally nicely named Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco.
There are no sons named Wise at Wise Sons. The deli takes its name from the “wise son” of the Passover ritual. The Jewish year 5771 translates (approximately, depending on the precise date) to the civil year 2011.
Happy Hanukkah and, as Julia Child would have said in Israel, b’te-avon!
“There seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year,” writes Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society, in the Lingua Franca blog. That lack, he maintains, “will make discussion and voting more lively” at the ADS’s annual meeting in Portland next month. No question that the discussion will be lively—it always is—but I beg to differ about “no leading candidate.” It may not be as controversial as the 2013 selection, because, or as social-media-friendly as 2012’s hashtag, but it’s still the clear front-runner.
My submissions to the ADS vote, to be held January 9:
As usual, Oxford Dictionaries was first out of the gate, nearly a month ago, with its WOTY choices. And the winner was… vape.
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vapehas grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year—based on a spike in number of lookups on the dictionary’s website—is culture:
Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).
This year, the use of the word culture to define ideas in this way has moved from the classroom syllabus to the conversation at large, appearing in headlines and analyses across a wide swath of topics.
Runners-up include nostalgia, insidious, legacy, and feminism.
The twentieth Kanji of the Year took a total of 8,679 votes, or 5.18% of the total 167,613. The reasons for its selection are clear: on April 1 this year the government raised Japan’s consumption tax for the first time in 17 years, bringing it from 5% to 8%. Meant to bolster funding for the country’s future social security needs, this tax hike impacted Japanese wallets and brought about drastic swings in the economy as a whole, with consumers front-loading major appliance, vehicle, and home purchases ahead of April 1 and curtailing spending after the higher rate went into effect. Two straight quarters of negative growth thereafter convinced Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to put off the next planned rate hike, from 8% to 10%, until the spring of 2017.
The German word of the year is lichtgrenze, the “border of light” created by thousands of illuminated helium balloons that were released November 9 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other words on the German list were less celebratory: “It was a year of terror, strikes, and football frenzy.”
Geoff Nunberg, the linguist-in-residence on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” picked God view as his word of the year:
It’s the term that the car service company Uber uses for a map view that shows the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who ordered them. The media seized on the term this fall when it came out that the company had been entertaining itself and its guests by pairing that view with its customer data so it could display the movements of journalists and VIP customers as they made their way around New York.
Nunberg continued: “What we’re talking about here, of course, is the sense that the world is getting more and more creepy. …Creepy is a more elusive notion than scary. Scary things are the ones that set our imagination to racing with dire scenarios of cyberstalkers, identity thieves or government surveillance — whereas with creepy things, our imagination doesn't really know where to start.”
Also in radioland, Ben Schott presented the most ridiculous words of the year, from the ridiculous active nutrition (“sports nutrition for people who don’t exercise”) to the appalling catastrophic longevity (“insurance-speak for people living too long”). Schott writes the Jargonator column for Inc. magazine; he spoke with NPR’s “The Takeaway.” (Link includes full audio and partial transcript.)
Here’s a reminder that there are as many Englishes as there are words of the year: the Australian National Dictionary Centre selected shirtfrontas its word of the year for 2014. It’s a verb, it comes from the vocabulary of Australian Rules football, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used it in a threat to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin:
The term was little known outside of its sporting context, although the figurative use has been around since at least the 1980s. Abbott’s threat to shirtfront Putin, and the word itself, was widely discussed and satirised in the Australian and international media.
The ANDC’s shortlist includes man-bun, Ned Kelly beard, and coward punch.
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.
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the most interesting and significant brand names of 2014. Not, I hasten to add, the biggest or most successful brands, but the ones that were “newly prominent or notable” (per the American Dialect Society’s criteria for words of the year) and exhibited linguistic and onomastic merit.
Uber. The rideshare app—based in San Francisco and operating in more than 200 cities worldwide—was founded in 2009, but 2014 was the year it truly became a household word, not always for positive reasons. Yes, the company was valued at a boggling $40 billion in December, up from $18 billion a mere six months earlier. But it was also beset by controversy: lawsuits, protests by licensed cab drivers in many European cities, revelations of unethical behavior on the part of top corporate executives. On the one hand, “Uber”—German for “over,” but minus the umlaut—seemed to characterize the company’s above-it-all arrogance. On the other hand, the app is undeniably popular—so much so that “Uber for __” now describes myriad unrelated businesses in the “shared economy”: Uber for snowplowing, for kids, for pizza, for gentleman companions, for flowers, for marijuana, and on and on.
1712, from addle (n.) “urine, liquid filth,” from Old English adela “mud, mire, liquid manure” (cognate with Old Swedish adel “urine,: Middle Low German adel, Dutch aal “puddle”).
Used in noun phrase addle egg (mid-13c.) “egg that does not hatch, rotten egg,” literally “urine egg,” a loan-translation of Latin ovum urinum, which is itself an erroneous loan-translation of Greek ourion oon “putrid egg,” literally “wind egg,” from ourios “of the wind” (confused by Roman writers with ourios “of urine,” from ouron “urine”). Because of this usage, from c.1600 the noun in English was taken as an adjective meaning “putrid,” and thence given a figurative extension to “empty, vain, idle,” also “confused, muddled, unsound” (1706). The verb followed a like course. Related: Addled; addling.
My favorite addle compound is addlepated, as in “What were those addlepated people thinking when they came up with this name?”
Trimmigrant: A person who travels to a cannabis-growing region during harvest season to trim marijuana buds and get them ready for market. A blend of trim and immigrant, although the workers may be native-born Americans from outside the region.
Olivia Cuevaof Youth Radio reported on December 4, 2014:
California’s Humboldt County is known for its towering redwoods. But this region about 200 miles north of San Francisco has another claim to fame. Humboldt is to weed what Napa is to fine wine — it’s the heart of marijuana production in the U.S.
Every fall, young people, mostly in their 20s, come from all over the world to work the marijuana harvest. They come seeking jobs as “trimmers” — workers who manicure the buds to get them ready for market. The locals have a name for these young migrant workers: “trimmigrants.”
There are more than 100,000 marijuana plants growing in the hills around Humboldt, the county sheriff’s office estimates. They all need to be harvested around the same time and processed quickly to avoid mold and other problems. So from September through November, it’s all hands on deck. That’s where trimmigrants, also called scissor drifters, come in.
Trimmers are paid by the pound, Cueva reported. Fast trimmers can make $300 to $500 a day (cash only, of course).
Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, which means that, among his many other duties, he judges the magazine’s weekly caption contest. Since the contest went weekly in 2004, readers have submitted more than two million entries. Inevitably, Mankoff has pondered why some captions succeed and others fail. And in one chapter of his new memoir/history How About Never—Is Never Good for You?*, published earlier this year, he shares his advice about how to beat the odds.
Here’s the thing: the advice doesn’t apply only to cartoon fans and contest hobbyists. To my surprise and delight, I found that it’s highly pertinent to my own discipline of name development.
Mankoff illustrates his advice—of course he does—with Caption Contest #55: a cartoon by Danny Shanahan of a rooster and a duck on a living-room couch. The rooster is putting the moves on the duck; the duck appears to be resisting. (Sorry; I haven’t been able to find the cartoon in the magazine archive.) Your job, if you want to win the contest, is to write the perfectly apt caption. How to do it?
Here’s my condensed version of Mankoff’s five-step process:
1. Verbalize. “Quality of captions emerges from quantity of captions,” Mankoff writes. (Me on name development: “To create a good name, you need to create a lot of names.”) “Look at the picture and say or write down all the words or phrases that pop into your mind, without censoring them, and then free-associate to those words and phrases.” Mankoff’s stream-of-consciousness includes duck, goose, honk, Donald Duck, the Donald, duck soup, avoid, evade, chicken and egg, birdbrain, migrate, and at least 15 other terms. From there, he starts captioning: “I didn’t say ‘quick,’ I said ‘quack.’” “Okay, now get the hell back across the road.” “Who you callin’ chicken?” To “verbalize” a naming process, be sure to push beyond mere description to functional benefits and emotional responses. Toyota’s new hydrogen-cell car could have gone the obvious descriptive route with a name like Hydro or H2. Instead, the company chose the aspirational Mirai—“future” in Japanese and full of resonance in other languages as well.
2. Conceptualize. “Take a break from the word play to play with ideas, generating alternate scenarios to explain the image or what the conflict is.” What if the cartoon isn’t depicting a duck and a chicken but rather people in duck and chicken costumes? You might, writes Mankoff, come up with something like “This isn’t working for me. I’ll get my hen costume.” This technique is harder than verbalization, Mankoff warns, but “it has the advantage of avoiding the most obvious captions.” In name development, avoiding the obvious is also paramount—you want a distinctive name, maybe even a counterintuitive one. So stop verbalizing and start doodling. Or role-playing. Or doing charades.
3. Topicalize. When possible, Mankoff writes, he likes to pick at least one finalist whose caption relates to something in the news. When the duck-chicken contest ran, in June 2006, avian flu dominated the headlines, and it showed up in many submissions: “Not tonight. I have bird flu.” “Have you been tested for bird flu?” And so on. A topical hook can help your naming process, too. Can you build a name from current slang or a new cultural trend? (Caveat: Don’t slavishly imitate a popular trope. The world has enough names that end in –ly and –ify.)
4. Socialize. “Try your captions out on your friends and see which get the best reactions. If you’ve got funny friends, this will help.” I don’t recommend focus-grouping names, but whenever possible I prefer to bounce ideas off a naming partner or partners who understand the naming objectives and criteria and are savvy about how language works. (And, yes, they’re funny.) Names are also “socialized” with the client team, of course—after all, they’re the one who’ll have to live with the results.
5. Fantasize. “Imagine you have won the contest.” What does the cartoon look like with your caption beneath it and a handsome frame surrounding it? My friend Betsy Burroughs, an innovation consultant, likes to advise her clients to imagine that their problem, whatever it is, is already solved. What’s different? What’s better? I like to imagine the name I’m developing is already a logo, a label, or a boldface item in a news story. How does that new name or tagline make the company or product more distinctive, more interesting, more memorable?
I’ll add one piece of advice to Mankoff’s excellent list: Keep your eyes open. You never know where a good idea will come from. It may even come from a book about, of all things, cartoons.
* The title comes from the caption of a 1993 Mankoff cartoon, one of the most popular ever published in the New Yorker.