It’s been a while since I’ve written about nearly swearyadvertising here. (It’s not as though I’ve taken a vow of purity: I’ve been shoveling that stuff over at the Strong Language blog.) But when I spotted a trifecta of fecal facetiousness within a span of a week, I just couldn’t hold back.
If you’re joining us late, here’s how the game is played: The name must consist of “Mister” or “Mr.” plus some generic noun (or, occasionally, verb). “Mister Smith”—a business owned by John Smith—wouldn’t make the cut, but “Mister Blacksmith” would, if the company manufactured, say, horseshoes or wrought-iron fences.
The headline is inaccurate and inadequate— “words” don’t “become startups”—and I take issue with the snarky attitude, but this list of short “real” (dictionary) words used as names of startups is worth a look. And the way they’re organized is downright poetic. (Hat tip: Karen Wise.)
Speaking of poetic, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead consideredthe favorite words of some writers (mostly British and Irish)—Hilary Mantel loves nesh, Taiye Selasi celebrates the Ghanaian colloquialism chale—and added a favorite of her own.
The flat white coffee drink was $4. A suggested tip was $3.
The cashier at Café Grumpy, a New York City coffeehouse, swiped the credit card, then whirled the screen of her iPad sales device around to face the customer. “Add a tip,” the screen commanded, listing three options: $1, $2 or $3.
In other words: 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent of the bill.
There was a “no tip” and a “customize tip” button, too, but neither seemed particularly inviting as the cashier looked on. Under that pressure, the middle choice — $2 — seemed easiest.
Technologies like DipJar(which TechCrunch has called “a tip jar where you pay with plastic, not spare change”) make the upcharge seamless, or even mindless.
When tip creep first began appearing, around 2007, it referred to “the expectation of a gratuity in places where none existed before,” according to the Ask the Waiter column at WaiterRant.com:
Tip jars are cropping up at movie theater concession stands, gas stations, liquor stores, and even the dry cleaners. What’s next? Tip jars outside an airline pilot’s reinforced cockpit door? On the reference librarians’ desk? Give me a break.
By September 2012, when the New York Post picked up on the trend, tip creep straddled two meanings:
Not only are there more hands reaching into your pocket, they’re expecting more: “Suggested” gratuities can run to 25 or even 30 percent, a number that might have been laughed off just a few years ago.
A primary source for the Post article was Steve Dublanica, a former waiter and the author of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest To Become the Guru of the Gratuity. Dublanica takes credit for coining tip creep, but it isn’t clear whether he came up with the term as early as 2007.
Tip creep follows the noun + creep established more than 20 years ago with mission creep, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a gradual shift in political or strategic objectives during the course of a military campaign, frequently resulting in an unresolved conflict or open-ended commitment.” Mission creep emerged from the U.S. military intervention in Somalia; an AP story datelined February 12, 1993, reported that the “mission to halt clan warfare and get aid to the needy … has unofficially widened its role to include such tasks as rebuilding houses, digging wells and creating police forces. Officials call it ‘mission creep’.”
Other noun + creep compounds include scope creep(out-of-control changes or continuous growth in a project’s scope) and bracket creep (the slow movement of lower-income people to higher tax brackets as a result of inflation). Word Spy has documented SPF creep (the gradual increase in sun protection factor numbers in sunscreens and other products); jargon creep (“the tendency of for the use of jargon terms to expand into different contexts and to spawn variations on the original terms”); season creep(“earlier spring weather and other gradual seasonal shifts, particularly those caused by global climate change”); ad creep(“the gradual expansion of advertising space to non-traditional surfaces such as floors, bathroom walls, cars, and the sides of buildings”); Christmas creep (“the gradual trend to begin displaying Christmas-related merchandise and advertising earlier each year”—earliest citation: 1986); commercial creep(“the gradual encroachment of commercial real estate into residential areas”); gift creep(“a gradual increase in the value or extent of one’s gift giving”);techno-creep (“the gradual encroachment of technology into every aspect of society”); and workweek creep (“the gradual extension of the workweek caused by performing work-related activities during non-work hours”).
Then there’s CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which was Richard Nixon’s fundraising arm in the 1972 campaign. A new CREEP, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, was established in 2012 as “an inside joke with a serious punchline,” according to ProPublica, the independent investigative journalism organization. The new CREEP’s stated mission is to “raise voices not dollars.”
Personal observation about tip creep: When the sales tax rate in most California cities hovered around 7.5 percent, many diners got into the habit of doubling the tax to calculate the tip. Now, thanks to … well, tax creep, we’re taxed nearly 10 percent on a restaurant tab (more in cities like San Francisco that add a surcharge for employee health care). Doubling the tax now means tipping in the 20 percent range.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, a Mexican restaurant chain called Illegal Pete’sis being targeted by immigrant-rights groups that say the name is derogatory and offensive because of “the i word,” as in “illegal immigrant.” The chain’s owner, Pete Turner, opened the first Illegal Pete’s in 1995; he told the New York Times the name “was inspired by the name of a bar in a novel and by his late father, also named Pete, who had a rebellious streak.” “I never intended it to be about undocumented immigrants,” Turner told the Times. “Never. Not once.” Turner, who calls himself a pro-immigrant liberal, says he gave serious consideration to a name change. But in early November he announced, in a long letter on the company website, that he’d decided against it. Readers’ comments have been almost unanimously supportive.
This week Toyota announced that it would start selling a hydrogen fuel cell sedan in 2015 (sticker price: $57,500). The futuristic car has a name to match: Mirai, which means “future” in Japanese.
The name sounds good to non-Japanese ears, too. Mira means “look” in Spanish, “aim” or “objective” in Italian, and “watch intensely” in French. In Sanskrit it means “ocean,” a fitting association with hydrogen. And in the Slavic languages mir means peace.
[O]ur English word “future” is firmly rooted in an Indo-European belief that it will come to pass / be / exist. The Sinitic term, in contrast, is more skeptical, and indicates an uncertainty about the very possibility of that which has not yet arrived. It seems to me that, if we accept the philosophical implications of the term, mirai / wèilái will keep receding and never quite arrive.
Print magazines, once dismissed as dead-tree relics, are proving to be pretty hardy after all. California Sunday, an independent monthly (for now) that’s distributed with the state’s biggest newspapers, made a splashy debut October 5. Now Airbnb, the lodging-rental company that’s out to disrupt the hospitality industry, has launched Pineapple, a quarterly publication for hosts (who may choose to share it with their paying guests). According to a New York Times article, the 128-page winter 2014 issue carries no advertising and contains features on San Francisco (where Airbnb is headquartered), London, and Seoul.
Why Pineapple? For centuries—since Columbus’s second voyage, according to some accounts—the fruit has symbolized hospitality and luxury. Pineapple names and images are common in the hospitality industry, and pineapple tchotchkes abound.
“It Couldn’t Please Me More” (The Pineapple Song) from the stage version of Cabaret (cut, sadly, from the movie). So rare! So costly! So luxurious! I searched in vain for a clip from the original Broadway show, in which the immortal Lotte Lenya played Fraulein Schneider.
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.)
Mother’s Day, as you surely know, is Sunday, May 11. Let’s celebrate in our own special way: with a roundup of “Mom” and “Mother” brands. (Skip to the end if you’d rather read about the semantic shadings of “mom” vs. “mother.”)
Smile Mom is an Android and iOS app that’s “a mobile social community for moms” as well as a “social baby book” that “guides you through important milestones of your child while organizing family videos and photos.” It was launched in 2013 by the Korean software company Smile Family.
Mom Meet Mom“is a Match.com for the stroller crowd,” TechCrunch reported in January 2014. As the company itself puts it: “We have created a sophisticated matching algorithm designed exclusively for Mom Meet Mom to help you find local moms with similar interests, schedules, families, and personalities.”
Momdoms—a mashup of “mom” and “condoms”—was conceived (sorry) to give parents “a clever, yet funny tool to start the sex conversation with their kids.” Fast Company reported last December that Momdoms condoms “come in tins featuring 1940s and ’50s-style women—i.e., the moms—and classic bits of mom wisdom: ‘Don't Make Me Come In There!’” Also available personalized with your own (or your mom’s picture).
You’ve heard the old advice about never eating at a place called Mom’s. (It’s not really all that old: Barry Popik tracks it back to Nelson Algren’s 1956 novelA Walk on the Wild Side.) Plenty of restaurants blithely ignore the warning. One of the newer ones: Dear Mom, a hipster-ish joint (kale tacos; a dessert called The Dude) in San Francisco’s Noe Valley.
Café Mom doesn’t serve food: it’s a virtual watering hole, established in 2006, “where moms come for conversation, advice, friendship, and entertainment.” No mom-and-pop outfit this: “We are the premier strategic marketing partner to the best brands, offering innovative custom solutions, contextually relevant media, and performance-driven targeting in order to help advertisers win with our audience.”
Save the Mom sounds like an earnest nonprofit, but—hello!—it’s another “social” website and app. Founded in 2012 and based in San Francisco, Save the Mom “was born to help modern families in their daily communication needs, trying to aggregate in one place all the information shared within a family that now are scattered among sms, phone calls, emails, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and the likes [sic].”
Let’s not forget the most sinister mom of all: MomCorp, the creepy corporate behemoth (beheMother?) on “Futurama” (Comedy Central).
MomCorp owns Mom’s Friendly Robot Company, Mom’s Friendly Delivery Company, and Mombil, which collects and sells dark matter. MomCorp also manufactures the LPad. (Should that be a lower-case L?)
MomCorp is not to be confused with Mom Corps, “a professional staffing and career development firm” founded in 2005.
Here’s a tip: whenever you see a brand called Mother rather than Mom, furnish your own air quotes.
To be sure, there’s still a sweetly single-entendre Mother’s Cookies. Founded in Oakland in 1914—and named to honor the new holiday of Mother’s Day—it went bankrupt in 2008 (corporate bonds scandal), and was relaunched as a Kellogg’s brand.
Old Mother’s Cookies logo. The mother is considerably younger-looking now.
But the newest incarnations of Mother take maternity a bit less literally.
Mother, from Sen.se (“Sense”), is a device that “imbues everyday objects with the gentle nagging power of our awesome moms” (according to TechCrunch). The gizmo stands about 6 inches tall, weighs 1 pound (450 grams), and bears a striking resemblance to the Shmoo from Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. (Like Mother, self-sacrificing Shmoos live to please.) In exchange for $222 you receive one Mother and four Motion Cookies—tiny sensors that can be affixed to toothbrushes, flowerpots, espresso makers, and other objects (or people) to check whether they’re being used properly.
The more I read about Mother, the more familiar its story sounded. Here are the opening paragraphs from the “Meaning of Life” page:
In 2003, we founded Violet based on this vision: all things will be connected. Violet led the way creating a Wi-Fi rabbit with an unpronounceable name. Its statement: from now on, anything can be connected to the Internet, anything, even rabbits.
Ten years have passed. Day after day, our 2003 dream is becoming more of a reality. Ten years have passed, but our vision has changed. This why we have created Sen.se. Back then, we thought the key words were things and connection. Today, we are convinced that the real issues are called life and meaning.
Aha! I wrote about that “Wi-Fi rabbit with an unpronounceable name”—Nabaztag—back in 2007.
Other Mother brands are even more arch. Take the related ad agencies Mother New York and Mother London. Here’s how the former’s website describes its offerings (capitalization and punctuation verbatim):
Misc. festivities, Short films, Longer films, Puppetry, Fine spirits, Internet things, Video games, High quality still photography, Business cards, Sausage making, General Knowledge.
The denim brand called MOTHER—all caps—is based in Los Angeles and sells $200 jeans (but not, you know, mom jeans) at Nordstrom, Piperlime, ShopBop, and Revolve. The styles have names like The Looker and The Cruiser.
Finally, some observations about mother, mom, and mama:
“Gradually, over the past couple of decades, mom has become an acceptable synonym for mother in journalism — no longer thought to be too casual, informal or personal.” – John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun, July 29, 2010
“This week Pew Research Center announced that, after decades of decline, an increasing amount of American women are “stay-at-home mothers. … Pew avoids ‘mom’ throughout their study, instead opting for the more venerating mother. (While moms make beef stroganoff, mothers are busy being matriarchs.)” – Katy Steinmetz, Time, April 11, 2014
“People hearing tot mom for the first time sometimes ask if it’s connected to another parenting-related compound word that has gained prominence in recent years: baby mama. Like tot mom, it means more than just a mother whose child is still a baby. A baby mama is an unwed mother, often one who makes trouble for her ‘baby daddy’ with her ‘baby mama drama.’ Where did these extra meanings come from?” – Neal Whitman, “Tot Moms and Baby Mamas,” in the Visual Thesaurus, July 11, 2011. (Neal goes on to answer the question.)
“Mom is everywhere and everything and damned near everybody, and from her depends all the rest of the U. S. Disguised as good old mom, dear old mom, sweet old mom, your loving mom, and so on, she is the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding. Men live for her and die for her, dote upon her and whisper her name as they pass away, and I believe she has now achieved, in the hierarchy of miscellaneous articles, a spot next to the Bible and the Flag, being reckoned part of both in a way.” – Philip Wylie on “Momism” in A Generation of Vipers (1942)