This “Charlotte’s Web” isn’t the beloved children’s book by E.B. White. But it does have a connection to childhood.
Some background first:
The five Stanley brothers of Wray, Colorado, grow medicinal marijuana in greenhouses and—now that medical and recreational cannabis are legal in Colorado—outdoors. Federal law prohibits them from shipping their product across state lines. But they’re hoping to circumvent that ban through what reporter Dave Phillips, writing in the New York Timeslast week, calls “a simple semantic swap: They now call their crop industrial hemp, based on its low levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot.”
That isn’t the only name the Stanleys have changed in their drive to “serve thousands of people instead of hundreds,” in the words of 27-year-old Jared Stanley, one of the brothers.
Here’s how Phillips tells the story:
The brothers, who had a Christian upbringing in conservative Colorado Springs, started a small medical marijuana business in 2008 after seeing the relief it brought to a relative sick with cancer. At first, they grew mostly marijuana high in THC that packed a serious psychoactive punch. On the side, they experimented with breeding plants low in THC but high in another cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, or CBD, which scientific studies suggested was a powerful anti-inflammatory that a handful of small studies showed might have potential as a treatment for certain neurological conditions, including seizures and Huntington’s disease.
For years, this variety languished unused in a corner of their greenhouse. “No one wanted it because it couldn’t get you high,” said Joel Stanley, 34, the oldest brother and head of the family business. They named the plant “Hippie’s Disappointment.”
Then, in 2012, a Colorado mother named Paige Figi came seeking CBD-rich marijuana oil for her 5-year-old daughter Charlotte, who has a genetic disorder called Dravet syndrome, which caused hundreds of seizures per week.
After a few doses of oil made from Hippie’s Disappointment, Charlotte’s seizures all but stopped, and two years later, daily drops of oil keep her nearly free of seizures, Ms. Figi says. The Stanleys renamed the plant Charlotte’s Web.
“Industrial hemp” is a smart repositioning tactic. And “Charlotte’s Web” is ingenious and poetic: allusive rather than descriptive; out of the 1960s and into the future of cannabis branding. But although the state of Colorado has accepted “industrial hemp,” and although some 200 families now rely on oil from Charlotte’s Web for their children’s health, the federal government—which during the George W. Bush administration tried to ban all hemp products with even a trace of THC—remains unconvinced. “In the last four months,” writes Phillips, “the [Drug Enforcement Administration] has seized thousands of pounds of nonintoxicating industrial hemp seeds, including a shipment bound for a research project at the University of Kentucky.”
For more of my posts on marijuana branding, start here.
The leaves of Citrus hystrix are used in many South and Southeast Asian cuisines; they’re sometimes called by their Thai name, makrut, but in many English-speaking countries they’ve long been called kaffir lime.That’s changing thanks to a protest “against the racial and religious slur of ‘kaffir’,” writes Tiffany Do in SF Weekly(“Citrus-Based Racism Leads Market to Change Product Names”). “Kaffir,” which comes from an Arabic word meaning “unbeliever,” was appropriated by English colonizers in South Africa, where it was used as a slur and a term of abuse against blacks. “What’s most surprising in this whole controversy is that the issue hasn't been addressed – and remedied – before now,” writes SF Weekly’s Do. Most markets are switching to the neutral “lime leaves.”
Who decides what makes a word “real”? Anne Curzan, a language historian and member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, explains why she finds language change “not worrisome but fun and fascinating.” (TEDxUofM talk; video and transcript.)
We say: meet (not ‘meet with’),consult (not ‘consult with’), talk to (not ‘talk with’), protest against a decision (not ‘protest a decision’), appeal against a verdict (not ‘appeal a verdict’).
And, n.b., the BBC does not punctuate the abbreviations i.e. or e.g.
In the early to mid-1960s, Mad magazine carried on a “glorious” and “fearless” anti-smoking campaign through parody ads that “closely resembled the real ones that ran on television and in magazines,” writes David Margolick in the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. The ads attacked tobacco companies, ad agencies, and smokers with equal-opportunity opprobrium. Mad has always been ad-free, and—unusual for the 1960s—its offices were “largely smoke free” as well: the magazine’s publisher, William Gaines, “was fanatically opposed to the habit,” writes Margolick.
It’s not every day that a name developer has the chance to name a radically new technology. Anthony Shore had such a chance when the makers of a “cinematic virtual reality” device hired him. Read about how Jaunt got its name.
“Machines don't need names, but we feel the need to name them,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic (“Why People Give Human Names to Machines”). The urge has long been with us, or at least some of us: a siege engine was named “Domina Gunilda” (“Lady Gunild”) in an Anglo-Norman document of 1330-1.
(My favorite submission comes from Erica Friedman, who once worked for an ad agency whose conference rooms were named Ideation, Creation, Dream, Coopetition [sic], and Resonate. “It was horrible and miserable and it still makes me shudder,” she writes. Erica and I are not related, but we are definitely soulmates.)
A name change begins with questions—what do we need to communicate? how do we want to express it?–and it ends not merely with the new name but with the story that accompanies it. In the best of outcomes—if the renaming process was guided by a clear and comprehensive naming brief—company executives can tell a cogent story about how the new name came to be. Other times, perhaps because they are a little muddled about what just happened and why, they spin their wheels and generate a not-very-convincing or useful word cloud.
This post is about one of those other times.
Zeebox, a London-based “social networking and social TV platform,” was founded in early 2011. In April of this year, the company announced it was changing its name to Beamly.
The name change, according to an April report in Digital TV Europe, represents the company’s “bid to ‘capture the zeitgeist’ of its core target audience of 16 to 24 year-old millennials and to break away from its ‘geeky male audience’.”
What made Zeebox geeky? What makes Beamly zeitgeist-y? I certainly wanted to know. Instead, here’s how Simon Miller, the company’s chief of product and content development, attempted to explain the name change:
Naming an app is tough. You’re looking for a memorable, distinctive name with an available an [sic] web URL and preferably with a connection with the purpose of your app. zeebox was by no means perfect, but it worked for our original focus. However, as our users asked us for more than just second screen features, we began to evolve beyond second screen experiences into what you might call a social network for TV, and our original name just didn’t match that evolution. We needed a new brand.
The explanation, such as it is, left me wanting more: Why was Zeebox “by no means perfect”? What about this imperfect name made it nevertheless a good fit for the “original focus”? Why was it a poor fit for the new, social-network focus? Why is it only “preferable” that the new name have “a connection with the purpose of your app”?
(And by the way: Don’t tell me that naming is “tough.” Cry me a river.)
As a social network for TV, we wanted a friendly, all-inclusive name to brand a community of TV lovers whilst retaining our second screen beginnings plus, of course, it needed to be memorable, distinctive and available. We considered hundreds of names, hunted high and low and eventually the name that put a smile on our faces (and everyone’s when you say it) was “Beamly”.
(Wondering about that “whilst” in Miller’s copy? Beamly is still a UK company, and “whilst” is a marker of British English. In American English, “while” is preferred unless the writer is aiming for an antiquated or humorous tone. However, Ben Yagoda observes in his Not One-Off Britishisms blog that “whilst” has been on the rise in the U.S. since about 2008. But I digress.)
Beamly’s corporate communication machine runs a little more smoothly when the controls are turned over to the art director and the creative director, who talk about Pantone colors, fonts, and navigation. Still, I’d rather not hear that “designing a logo is never a short process”—as with the “tough” naming job, who cares? And while (or whilst) there’s some lip service given to form, function, and simplicity, there’s also too much of this sort of thing:
In the end we opted to use Beamly Coral at the top level of the app (My TV, Discover, Guide, Notifications, Me), but when navigating to a TV Room or TV show the colour of those pages would be calculated by analysing the colours within the image representing the show.
Hmm? Oh, sorry—I just switched channels.
As for the Beamly name—well, you already know what I think about -ly names. Still, “beam” is a valid starting point, and even a mediocre name can be strengthened by clear and effective storytelling. It’s disappointing to see this company miss the opportunity to tell a meaningful name story in language its customers can understand and value.
San Francisco’s “legendary drag/performance art event,” Trannyshack, is undergoing a name change, the San Francisco Chronicle’s culture blog reports:
Drag impresario and Trannyshack founder Heklina (Stefan Grygelko) announced via Facebook on Tuesday that the 18-year-old club night will henceforth be known as “T-Shack,” bowing to pressure from the transgender community who have long felt the use of the word “tranny” to be pejorative in any context.
Bottom’s Up, a drive-through espresso bar in Clovis (Fresno County), California, is bowing to neighbors’ complaints and changing its “sexy drink names,” according to the Fresno Bee:
The business agreed to rename three of its most provocatively named specialty drinks. They’re now called “Tropical Kiss,” “Sweet Cheeks” and “Hawaiian Nights.” The previous names were, well, unprintable (at least in a family newspaper).
No such constraints apply here.
Spot the naughty names!
Personally, I’m more offended by the apostrophe in “Bottom’s.”
RiechesBaird, a 20-year-old brand-strategy firm named for its founders, has changed its name and URL to the easier-to-pronounce BrandingBusiness. In a blog post, Ray Baird said he and co-founder Ryan Rieches “have no hesitation” about removing their names from the door. The firm has offices in Irvine, California, and New York City. (Hat tip:Alan Brew.)
I’ve been interested for years in advertisers’ penchant for turning adjectives into nouns and nouns into verbs. In his regular column for The Week, James Harbeck, a linguistics-trained editor, looks at why these switches—collectively known as anthimeria—work. It’s all about bisociation: “You have two things operating on two different planes or according to two different scripts, and at the point where the two meet, you jump from one to the other. … Bisociation tickles your brain, and that’s just what marketers want to do.”
Here’s something lovely: Vernacular Typography, “dedicated to the documentation and preservation of vanishing examples of lettering in the everyday environment.” A project of the New York Foundation for the Arts, it catalogs ghost signs, Coney Island signs, no-parking signs, subway signs, grammatical-error signs, and much more.
Reason #46,313: The best worst names in superhero comics, compiled with frightening thoroughness by Drew G. Mackie of Back of the Cereal Box. A few of my favorites: Egg Fu, Microwavebelle, Flemgem, and Rice O’Rooney (the San Francisco Threat). If you don’t know why the last one is so bad it’s good, watch this.
On April 22 the New York Times launched The Upshot, an online section that focuses on politics and policy. The name was chosen over 45 also-rans, including Crux, Kernel, Sherpa, and Uncharted. Why did The Upshot prevail? “It’s simple and straightforward,” the editors write, “and there’s no inside joke or historical reference you’ll need to understand what it’s about: a clear analysis of the news, in a conversational tone.”
Now that Pied Piper, the fictional startup in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” series, has an official logo, how well does it stack up?
In November 2012, voters in Washington State legalized marijuana use and authorized the licensing of retail outlets to sell cannabis. (Voter turnout, Wikipedia notes with no apparent irony, was 81 percent, “the highest in the nation.”) Now that Seattle’s first pot stores have been chosen by lottery, let’s take a look at their names. Lots of greens (Greenjuana, Evergreen, Street of Greens, Green Vision, Greenco, Behind the Green Door), quite a bit of 420 (Seattle 420, 420 PM Corp, Highway 420, 420-911), and a few whose owners appear to be fans of “The Wire” (Bellinghamsterdam, Vansterdam, Hamsterdam, New Vansterdam). Kinda meh, if you ask me, but hey—it’s still a budding industry. (Hat tip: Benjamin Lukoff.)
In related news, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog talks to four cannabis-industry experts about “how to brand a high-demand, once-illegal product.” Cherchez les femmes, says Cheryl Shuman, who points to “stiletto stoners”—successful working women who smoke pot—as a key demographic. (Hat tip: Irene Nelson.)
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.
One of the most edifying books I read in 2013 was Rose George’s The Big Necessity, first published in the U.S. in 2009. George, a British journalist, delves into history, descends into city sewers, visits a Japanese factory that makes robo-toilets, and interviews the leaders of India’s “open-defecation-free” campaign in her exploration of “the unmentionable world of human waste.” If you like the work of Mary Roach (who blurbed George’s book), you’ll love the combination of thorough research and zesty writing in The Big Necessity.
In addition to some boggling statistics (2.6 billion people have no access to even the most primitive form of sanitation), The Big Necessity offers some good stories about language and names. Here, for example, is the story of how and why “sludge”—first used, in the late 19th century, to mean “the precipitate matter in sewage tanks”—was reinvented a century later as “biosolids.”
First, a little background from Chapter 7, “The Battle of Biosolids”:
The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science defines sludge as “a viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals and settled solids removed from domestic industrial waste water at a sewage treatment plant.” The Clean Water Act keeps it simple and calls it a pollutant.
“[B]y the end of the [20th] century sludge contained far more than pure human excrement,” George writes, “and hardly any of it good. Anything that goes into the sewers can end up in sludge.”
Decades ago, one pioneering sewage authority determined to turn sludge into metaphorical gold:
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) has been selling its sludge as fertilizer since 1925, with discreet labeling. Only someone who knew what MMSD stood for would realize Milorganite is derived from a human body.
The sludge and wastewater industry looked at Milorganite and saw the light. No one would want to live near farms where sewage sludge was applied. But people might want to live near fields that were covered in a fertilizer called something else. The transformation of sludge into “biosolids” was brilliantly documented in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. The book was about “the lies, damn lies” of the PR industry in general, but the maneuvers of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the U.S. sewage industry association, were impressive enough to provide the authors with their title. The EPA, they write, was conscious even in 1981 of the need to persuade the public to accept sludge farming. A Name Change Task Force was formed, and suggestions solicited through a WEF newsletter. The 250 suggestions received included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “the end product,” “hudoo,” “powergro,” and—my favorite—ROSE, standing for “Recycling Of Solids Environmentally.” [Ed: A ROSE by any other name would smell as sweet?] Biosolids won, probably because it was the blandest. Maureen Reilly, a prominent sludge opponent and the producer of the prolific SludgeWatch newsletter, calls this “linguistic detoxification.”
In an endnote, George gives more detail about Milorganite:
Milorganite was named by McIver and Son of Charleston, South Carolina, who entered a competition to name the new fertilizer in National Fertilizer Magazine in 1925. Milorganite stands for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen. Its history is told at http://www.milorganite.com.
According to that website, “Milorganite fertilizer is one of the oldest branded fertilizers on the market today.”
In 1994, a Princeton graduate named Jeff Bezos left the New York hedge fund D.E. Shaw, where he had quickly risen through the ranks, to start a new venture. As Brad Stone tells the story in his new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Bezos went with a close friend, Jeff Holden, to a barbecue restaurant on 44th Street to strategize. They talked about the name of the business they wanted to start:
Bezos had tentatively decided to call his company Cadabra Inc., but was not committed to the name. Holden filled both sides of a piece of notebook paper with alternatives. The one Bezos liked best on the list was MakeItSo.com, after Captain Picard’s frequent command in Star Trek.
But MakeItSo didn’t stick. In August 1994, when Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, had moved to the Seattle area and was beginning to hire developers “to help pioneer commerce on the Internet,” he revisited the naming project:
The magical allusions of Cadabra Inc., as Todd Tarbert, Bezos’s first lawyer, pointed out after they registered that name with Washington State in July of 1994, were too obscure, and over the phone, people tended to hear the name as Cadaver. So later that summer, after renting a three-bedroom ranch house in the East Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Bezos and MacKenzie started brainstorming. Internet records show that during that time, they registered the Web domains Awake.com, Browse.com, and Bookmall.com. Bezos also briefly considered Aard.com, from a Dutch word, as a way to stake a claim at the top of most listings of websites, which at the time were arranged alphabetically.
Aard means “earth” in Dutch. Aardvark—from Afrikaans, which is related to Dutch—means “earth pig.”
Bezos and his wife grew fond of another possibility: Relentless.com. Friends suggested that it sounded a bit sinister. But something about it must have captivated Bezos: he registered the URL in September 1994, and he kept it. Type Relentless.com into the Web today and it takes you to Amazon.1
Still, Cadabra.com lived on through the fall, while Bezos set up his headquarters in a converted garage. Shel Kaphan, a founding employee, arrived in Seattle from California and “immediately began worrying about the company’s name”:
“I was once part of a little consultancy called the Symmetry Group, and people always thought we were the Cemetery Group,” says Kaphan. “When I heard about Cadaver Inc., I thought, Oh God, not this again.”
The final name selection occurred in late October 1994:
Bezos pored through the A section of the dictionary and had an epiphany when he reached the word Amazon. Earth’s largest river; Earth’s largest bookstore. He walked into the garage one morning and informed his colleagues of the company’s new name. He gave the impression that he didn’t care to hear anyone’s opinion on it, and he registered the new URL on November 1, 1994.
Later in the book, Stone tells the story of the Kindle, which was developed by an Amazon division dubbed Lab126 headed by Gregg Zehr. (Stone: “The 1 stood for a, the 26 for z; it’s a sublte indication of Bezos’s dream to allow customers to buy any book every published, from a to z.” The arrow in the Amazon logo also reinforces the a-to-z association.)
Lab126 reported to Steve Kessel, who had joined Amazon in 1999 and took over the new digital initiative in 2004.
In those waning months of 2004, the early Lab126 engineers selected a code name for their new project. On his desk, Zehr had a copy of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a futuristic novel about an engineer who steals a rare interactive textbook to give to his daughter, Fiona. The early Lab126 engineers thought of the fictitious textbook in the novel as a template for what they were creating. Michael Cronan, the San Francisco-based graphic designer and marketing executive who baptized the TiVo, was later hired to officially brand the new dedicated reading device, and he came up with Kindle, which played off the notion of starting a conflagration and worked as both a noun and a verb.2 But by then Kessel’s team was devoted to the name Fiona and the group tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Bezos to keep it. In a sense, the knowledge-starved Fiona of Stephenson’s fictional world became Amazon’s patron saint in its risky journey into the digital frontier.
The code name for the Kindle 2, released in 2009, was Turing, “after a castle in The Diamond Age,” Stone writes. That castle was in turn named for Alan Turing, the pioneering British computer scientist best known for the Turing test, considered the foundation of artificial intelligence.
How many languages can you identify from 20-second audio samples? Play the Great Language Game and find out. The game is multiple choice; selecting between two samples—say, Hindi vs. Italian—is relatively easy, but just wait till you get to the Bosnian-Serbian-Maltese-Estonian matchup.
“Italian doesn’t have a y in native words but has no problem with the ones from English, as with Milan’s CityLife.” – Linguist Will Leben on how names and words cross borders.
From Bryan A. Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of the indispensable Garner’s Modern American Usage, comes a challenging vocabulary quiz. It’s aimed at lawyers, but all 20 words are ones a well-read layperson should know. (To answer your question: I scored 19/20. And I’m not going to tell you which word tripped me up.)
I linked to the UK creative agency Asbury & Asbury earlier this month, in my post about Yahoo’s new logo. But I can’t resist sharing a couple more links to the clever work of this unusual team: Hall of Unwanted Dotcoms (“a list of 20 unclaimed addresses, all fewer than seven letters, one syllable and easy to pronounce”) and Corpoetics (“a collection of ‘found’ poetry from the websites of well-known brands and corporations”).
* As it happens, I have a relative named Joshua J. Friedman, but he isn’t this reporter.