Is Cadillac a whipped underdog? That’s what I infer from the automaker’s new “Dare Greatly” campaign, from Publicis, which will kick off during Sunday’s Academy Awards broadcast. I caught the teaser ad at a Berkeley movie theater before a screening of the Best Foreign Film nominee Timbuktu, which is about the violent clash between cattle herders and religious extremists in Mali. (The dissonance between ad and movie was so thick it would have taken a cleaver to slice it. But I digress.)
Here’s the spot:
The script isn’t credited, but it’s lifted from “Citizenship in a Republic,” a 1910 speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris by Theodore Roosevelt, then one year out of the White House. The youthful-sounding female voiceover, the moody music, the slow-mo near-black-and-white imagery: they’re intended to make you think—no, not think, feel—that Something Important Is About to Happen. Something moving and portentous and great. But is that really what we’re being told?
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?”
“Grow Up Strong and Harmless.” But not armless, obviously.
I … don’t get this. I mean, “Grow Up Strong”—sure, fine, OK. But how does one “Grow Up Harmless”? What could that possibly mean?
“Harmless” has several dictionary definitions: inoffensive (“He seems harmless enough”) and benign (“harmless bacteria”) are the most familiar. There’s also a legal definition, the one we see in the boilerplate language “to hold harmless”: “free from loss or legal liability.”
But the WF ad doesn’t appear to use “harmless” in any of those senses. Instead—as far as I can tell—it’s meant to be a synonym for “kind” or “ethical.” Or possibly “Without Causing Harm to Anything on the Planet.” That’s quite a semantic leap, and, frankly, senseless.
Then again, I may just be too square for the rarefied sensibilities of Partners & Spade, which has built its reputation on too-cool-for-school chic. The agency’s inverted name is one tipoff; its strenuously self-effacing tagline—“A Well-Intentioned Endeavor”—is another. The P&S client list is a hipster honor roll: Warby Parker, Shinola, Harry’s shaving products. The Spade on the nameplate is Andy Spade, husband of Kate and co-founder of the fashion label Kate Spadeand the grownup jammies label Sleepy Jones. I’d tweet a query about “harmless,” to P&S, but the account’s been moribund for more than a year. Too cool for Twitter, even!
The “harmless” Whole Foods ad triggered my recollection of another grocery-store “harmless.”
The first time I encountered this name I thought it sounded weirdly apologetic: damning with the faintest of praise. But at least it has alliteration on its side; Whole Foods’ “harmless” just sounds confused.
I did find one use of “harmless” that’s not merely well intentioned but also well targeted: Harmless.org, a UK organization that helps “people who self harm, their friends and families and professionals.” At last—someone who knows how to keep “harmless” out of harm’s way.
Validate: To make legally valid; to sanction; to confirm or corroborate; to authorize; to verify. (“The court validated the contract”; “The judge validated the election”). From Latin validatus, participle form of validus: strong, powerful, effective. Related to valiant.
Those are the primary definitions of validate in all of the major dictionaries I consulted: American Heritage, OED, Merriam-Webster, and Macmillan. But validate has some specialized meanings, too, one of which baffled me recently.
This usage is common in the U.S. “Parking validation” refers to a stamp on a parking receipt that gives the bearer discounted or free access to a parking space. (This usage does mystify some people, mostly non-Americans: see anxious questions at WiseGeek, Yahoo Answers, and Trip Advisor.) Here, “validate” has the “sanction” meaning: a validation sticker or stamp confirms the bearer’s right to park in a private lot or garage. (I couldn’t determine when this usage first cropped up, or who the original parking-validator was. I’d love to know.)
And because I survived the Psychobabble Era, I know another usage of validate: “to cause a person to feel valued, significant, or worthwhile; to affirm that a person’s feelings, opinions, desires, etc. have validity, truth, or worth.” (Adapted from OED, whose earliest citation for this usage was published in a 1951 journal of child-development research.)
Validation, “a fable about the magic of free parking.” The short film was directed by Kurt Kuenne; the title plays on two meanings of “validate.” Watch here.
The validate usage that confused me came from a prospective client, a marketing person who works in technology. This person asked me to “validate” a product name the company already uses. I read the request in the legal sense: “Confirm our position; tell us we’re doing the correct thing.” And I was flummoxed, because I don’t see my role as that of a rubber-stamp.
But it turns out my client had a different definition mind. This validate means something closer to “Evaluate the correctness of the name.”
My realization came when, soon after I got the “validate” request, I happened to be chatting with an acquaintance who does data analysis for drug companies’ clinical trials. I asked her whether she’d ever used “validate” to mean anything other than “confirm,” and she, well, confirmed that she had. In drug testing, she said, “to validate” means “to demonstrate that a process maintains a desired level of compliance at all stages.” (I’ve subbed in the language of a Wikipedia entry to be sure I got it right.)
Wikipedia opened my eyes to a whole spectrum of validations. There’s data validation: ensuring that data inserted into an application satisfies defined formats. There’s regression model validation in statistics: determining whether a model fits the data well. There’s forecast validation: verifying prognostic output from a numerical model.
The “evaluate” sense of validate comes from software engineering (and from engineering generally). Here’s how a Wikipedia entry on validation and verification puts it:
Validation checks that the product design satisfies or fits the intended use (high-level checking), i.e., the software meets the user requirements. This is done through dynamic testing and other forms of review. … Software validation confirms that the product, as provided, will fulfill its intended use.
Software validation is one thing, but name validation? I’ve been doing naming development in many areas, including technology, for many years, but I’d never been asked to “validate” a name. It was as though I were encountering a new language; no wonder I felt at sea.
I’m a quick study when I need to learn about arcane subjects like cybersecurity, surgical stents, or field-programmable gate arrays. I like learning my clients’ specialized vocabulary. But when we’re discussing my specialty, I’d prefer that they drop the jargon. If my clients aren’t familiar with my own lingo (sound symbolism, naming brief, suggestive names), I’ll use common, non-shibboleth-y English in our discussions of branding. Otherwise we risk misunderstanding, as we did with validate.
What I experienced with validate was what, in a series of posts for Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum has called nerdview*. Here’s how Pullum defines nerdview inhis most recent post on the subject, published September 12:
Nerdview stems from a failure of something fundamentally human and highly relevant to linguistic communication: to do linguistic communication you have to appreciate that the other human has a viewpoint, a perspective, and it may not be the same as yours. You have to be able to think about things from their point of view.
In his new book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that a lot of jargon-packed writing can be blamed on the Curse of Knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” When you’ve learned something so well “that you forget that other people may not know it,” Pinker writes, “you also forget to check whether they know it.”
I’ll have more to say about The Sense of Style in a future post. Meanwhile, I’m just grateful I’ve learned to define validate in Nerd Dialect.
* Some would argue that the more technically correct term would be geekview. That argument may itself be an example of nerdview.
I bring glad tidings for Festivus 2013! Last week Denver celebrated its second annual Beer Festivus (“A Beer Festival for the Rest of Us!”). There’s a Festivus pole constructed of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans inside the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, erected by “artist/protester/drinker of cheap beer Chaz Stevens” to protest the Nativity scene in the same government building. And I’m back for the fifth consecutive year with a public Airing of Grievances, one of the canonical rites of this defiantly non-canonical holiday.
If you go in for tradition, Festivus is celebrated on December 23. But we Festivusians say feh! to tradition. We also say, “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!”
Also ill advised: a wordmark that makes it all too easy to read the name as “anus.”
I have anticipated your questions: No, “Onus” is not the name of the CEO/founder. (Her name is Kimberly Lee.) And it’s not “on us,”as in “The first visit’s on us!” I phoned the office: “Onus” rhymes with “bonus,” of which there is none to be found in the name.
Some names are born bad, others achieve badness, and still others have badness thrust upon them. Here are four bad names, each bad in its own tragic, annoying, or inept way.
There is simply no excuse for the spelling of Ketchuppp.
According to TechCrunch, “Ketchuppp wants to help you meet up with the people you actually like spending time with on a regular basis (or did before social media ate your social life) — and do so in person, not digitally.” (Imagine!) Evidently the founders fell in love with the “catch up” idea, never considered any other name directions or asked for professional advice, and kept fiddling with the spelling until finally they found a dot-com domain for $5.99. (Ketchup.com is for sale; Ketchupp.com—at least the double P would have suggested “app”—redirects to Pinocc.io.) Bad strategy, bad name. And to make matters worse, the web copy repeatedly uses “Ketchuppp” as a verb, which risks genericizing the brand name.
(Also, “Not Just Another Social App” is an I-give-up tagline. Tell us what you are, not what you aren’t.)
It could have been worse, I guess. As one TechCrunch commenter points out, “At least it’s not called KKKetchup.”
Scorecard: Unoriginal concept, tortured spelling. But it’s pronounceable. 30/100.
Ketchuppp is an app and a startup, so we can chalk up its bad name to inexperience. But Aesynt? It’s what McKesson Automation is called now that the division’s has been spun off from McKesson Corporation. And the parent company is an almost 200-year-old American institution with sales of about $122 billion (2012).
Take a minute to consider how you’d pronounce “Aesynt.”
Did you rhyme it with “adjacent” or “nascent,” with a long A sound in the first syllable? Did you focus on the /ae/ vowel cluster and try to connect the name with “aerial” or “aesthetic”? Did you see the “syn” as having something to do with “synthesis” or “synergy,” and pronounce it accordingly?
Now that you know how to pronounce Aesynt, try Lytx.
I’ll go first: I read the name as Lyt-X, or “light-ex.” (I assumed it was following the pattern of SpaceX.) Not so fast! Lytx is the new corporate name for 15-year-old San Diego-based DriveCam. The website gives no pronunciation clues, so we turn to Xconomy (another X name!) for the details:
So “Lytx” rhymes with “critics”? That’s a stretch. The /ly/ cluster can be pronounced at least three ways: as lie, lee, and lih. Yes, “lyric” and “lynx” are pronounced with the lih sound, but in coined names, /ly/ at the beginning of a name usually defaults to lie, especially when the addition of /t/ makes it look like a new spelling of light (see Lytro, Lytron, Lytera).
Scorecard: Tortured spelling, counterintuitive pronunciation, generic concept. Looks cool, though. The CEO’s last name is Nixon, which may explain the X. 30/100.
What pains me about “Blah” is that I’m a big fan of Fly London—I recently discovered the brand and now am the happy owner of several pairs of FL shoes—and I want it to do no wrong. I’m willing to indulge Fly London’s penchant for slightly wacky style names (Yif? Yush? Yoni? Faff?) because so many of the shoes are so fabulous. To be honest, I wouldn’t include the Blah in that category, but I also wouldn’t stigmatize it with a bad name. Blah goes beyond wacky, beyond whimsical; it’s just mean and dispiriting.
Scorecard: Pass the Prozac and lock up the kitchen knives. 0/100.
Here is Page 6 of Best Buy’s 2013/2014 furniture catalog, an expensive-looking proposition—30 pages, four colors, heavy paper stock—that’s distributed in retail stores.
I’ve boosted the photo’s contrast, but it may still be hard to read. Here’s a close-up:
“Lay back & relax.”
For the record, it should be Lie back & relax. (I’m not crazy about the ampersand, either, but Best Buy appears to be fond of it.)
Yes, yes: lay and lie, like other irregular verbs, are hard to keep straight. (Mostly for native English speakers. I’ve noticed that people for whom English is a second or third language have very little trouble remembering the conjugations.) Yes, even college-educated people say “lay back” (and “I laid back”) all the time. And yes, English will probably, someday, merge lie and lay—languages do that sort of thing all the time.*
But for now, we still have the lie/lay distinction. And we also hold published writing from a voice of authority** to a different standard than spoken utterances. I keep quiet when my Pilates instructor tells me to “lay back [sic] one vertebrae [sic] at a time,” as she does with impressive consistency, but I’d correct her if she wrote that sentence on her website and asked me to edit it.
Not only did Best Buy make an error so common any trained proofreader should have caught it, the company also missed an opportunity for a catchier, more alliterative headline: Recline and Relax.
Here’s Grammar Girl on lay and lie (and laid and lain). And here’s my own oversimplified mnemonic: lie has the same vowel sound as the stressed syllable of recline; lay has the same vowel sound as place.
* “When proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go” – Elmore Leonard—but he was referring to fictional narrative. Proper usage doesn’t get in the way of Best Buy’s message (“You need this $2,299 seating group”).
** Best Buy: 1,150 stores in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and China; $49 billion in revenue in 2012.
“Famous: The BMW 7 Series. Infamous: The BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe.” –New York Times, Page B5, June 27, 2013
Infamous*? Is the 6 Series Gran Coupe an expensive** getaway car? Is it favored by drug runners? Does the engine have a tendency to explode?
Let’s not even get started on the pretentious accent over the E in “coupe” on the website. (It’s kosher, but rare in American car talk. Most Americans don’t say “coo-PAY,” they say “coop.”) I was surprised to see “coupe”—sorry, coupé—applied to a four-door vehicle. I guess the extra doors are what make it gran.
But it was “infamous” that made my jaw drop. Were BMW’s copywriters unaware that “infamous” is a word with zero positive connotations? It does not mean “intensely famous” any more than “penultimate” means “pinnacle of ultimate” or “epicenter” means “epic center.”