When I was a kid we called them “thongs” or “zoris.”
What exactly can you expect when you commission a $5 logo from Fiverr? To find out, Sacha Greif invented a company (“SkyStats”) and tested the waters. Among his conclusions: “Fiverr apparently sees nothing wrong with designers appropriating other people’s work. And not only do they tolerate it, they even directly profit from it since they feature these fake work samples prominently.”
Cherevin may be the evil aggressors of economic warfare, but I’d love to have them as a client. They could teach me about propping up housing markets, and I might be able to offer them a nugget or two about reducing security breaches through better interaction design. Plus, I bet it’s fun to get a project brief with the objective of ‘instilling fear and obedience.’
UPDATE: This morning (June 18), the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an independent tribunal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, recommended that the federal registrations for “Redskins” trademarks be cancelled. Read the TTAB fact sheet.
Power Vocab Tweet was invented by the creator of Everyword, which recently completed its mission to tweet every word in the English language.From the blog:
On the surface, Power Vocab Tweet is a parody of “word-of-the-day”blogs and Twitteraccounts. My real inspiration, though, comes from the novel Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. In that book, a group of underground linguists invent a language (Láadan) that “encodes” in its lexicon concepts that aren’t otherwise assigned to words in human languages. …
The definitions are generated via Markov chain from the definition database in WordNet. The words themselves are generated from a simple “portmanteau” algorithm; each word is a combination of two “real” English words of the appropriate part of speech. (The forms of the words and text used to generate the associated definition aren’t related.)
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.)
“We’ve turned learning vocabulary into an addictive game,” says Vocabulary.com, which this week announced its new app (iPhone and iPad only, for now). Vocabulary.com’s chief technology officer, Mark Tinkler, told Fast Company that some people play “over 10 hours a day. It’s crazy.”
You’ve probably heard about Facebook COO Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg’s campaign to ban the “bossy” descriptor for girls and women. Perhaps you’ve tangentially wondered, as I did, why cows are frequently called “Bossy,” at least in the U.S. There are two theories, and “no matter which of the two theories you pick, you end up in Latin.” (World Wide Words)
I attended my first roller derby match a couple of weekends ago, and couldn’t believe my ears when the announcer said that Fatal Dreidel would be skating for the Oakland Outlaws. Not only is that her actual nom de derby, it turns out there’s a whole subgenre of Jewish derby pseudonyms, including Mayhem Bialik, Yom Tripper, and Hebrewno Mars. (Jewniverse, via Diane Fischler.)
For more on derby names, see my May 2011 linkfest and law professor Dave Fagundes’s “Talk Derby to Me” (great title!), on “intellectual property norms governing roller derby pseudonyms,” published in 2012 in the Texas Law Review.
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.
Who’s minding the store at Target? A week ago Consumerist reported that the retailer was selling a plus-size dress in a color unflatteringly called Manatee Gray. (A manatee is also known as a sea cow.) This week there’s been a cross-lingual dustup over a sandal style called “Orina,” which means “urine” in Spanish.
Image from Yahoo Shine. Target quickly removed the product page and is said to be renaming the style.
“Does no one speak Spanish at Target HQ or have access to this thing we call Google?” asked Consumerist reporter Mary Beth Quirk. No and no, apparently. Target’s initial defense was that “orina” means “peaceful” in Russian. As though Russian rather than Spanish were the second-most-spoken language in the United States, after English.
I learned about Target’s number-one problem via a tweet from Mighty Red Pen, who also sent me a link to Yahoo Shine’s coverage of the story. Full marks to senior editor Lylah M. Alphonse, whose recounting of other notable naming gaffes sets the record straight on the Chevy Nova “no-go” myth.
Target isn’t the only business with Orina issues. A similar etymological fallacy led to the naming of Café Orina in the Bay Area city of Concord, California.
When Maura Storace sent me the photo, she commented, “I wonder if the coffee they serve is amber-colored?”
The café’s About Us page includes this earnest explanation:
Meaning of Orina Its source is Eirene, a Greek name meaning “Peace.”
Narrative: This was the name of the Greek goddess of peace. Until the 20th century, it was commonly pronounced in three syllables (i-REE-nee).
Very nice, but there are almost 700,000 native Spanish speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only a relative handful of Greek speakers.
Moral: Check several bilingual dictionaries before committing to a lovely-sounding exotic name. And know your market.
And as long as this post is already in the toilet, here’s Kmart’s new TV spot, which – incongruously for a retailer not known for creative marketing – takes positive glee in its potty humor. The much-repeated tagline is “Ship my pants.”
For more on the British idiom “taking the piss” – not to be confused with “taking a piss” – read this.
It’s funny how you can go for months without seeing “squirrel” in print, and then, bam, two sightings within three days.
The first squirrel is a red herring. It appears in Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journalreview of Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, a biography by Harriet Hyman Alonso of the man who wrote the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “April in Paris,” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg in New York City in 1896; he changed his name to Edgar Y. Harburg in 1934 but was generally known as E.Y. Harburg or Yip Harburg.
Why “Yip”? In his review, Epstein says the nickname “came from the Yiddish word for squirrel, yipsl, which his parents called him when he was a child.” But the Yiddish word for squirrel is actually the Slavic-derived veverke; no Yiddish dictionary contains yipsl. According to Alonso, who devotes the first chapter of her book to the origin of “Yip,” Harburg related the yipsl-squirrel story to the oral historian Studs Terkel. Alonso passes it along without further comment, as does Epstein.
It’s entirely possible, though, that Harburg was pulling Terkel’s leg – or being squirrelly (“cunningly unforthcoming or reticent”). Because while yipsl has no meaning in Yiddish, the acronym YPSL is both meaningful and relevant: it stands for Young People’s Socialist League, which was founded in 1907 as the student arm of the American Socialist Party and whose members were known as – yep – “Yipsels.” In a 2004 column for The Jewish Daily Forward, the pseudonymous language columnist Philologos wrote that “Harburg was a political radical who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it is possible that he was nicknamed ‘Yipsel,’ subsequently shortened to ‘Yip,’ because of his YPSL-like views even if he never was a YPSL member.” Other distinguished Yipsels or sympathizers included the political scientist Daniel Bell, the literary and social critic Irving Howe, the writer Saul Bellow, and the journalist (and eventual neoconservative) Irving Kristol.
The second squirrel is a semi-secret one.
Secret Squirrel Cold Brew Coffee is a bottled coffee concentrate; one 16-ounce bottle makes six to seven eight-ounce drinks. The company is based in Studio City (Los Angeles County), but according to the clumsily written FAQ the name has a different geographic origin:
Growing up in Washington DC area a secret squirrel was something like knowing a shortcut around traffic, or knowing the hideaway parking spot, or knowing the unknown electrical outlet in the coffee shop. It only seemed fitting for this centuries old method for brewing coffee that few people know about.
(That awkward dangler at the beginning of the paragraph is one good argument for editors. Another is knowing how to hyphenate compound adjectives. Elsewhere on the website, a proofreader would have caught “anyway” for “any way,” sentences that end without periods, and introductory clauses without commas. But I digress.)
I have no idea whether the D.C. story is true – anyone care to confirm? I do know, however, that “Secret Squirrel” was the title character of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that aired for a few seasons in the mid-1960s and was briefly revived in the 1990s. The character was a spy; whether it got its name from the Washington shortcut or vice versa, I cannot say.
Finally, a few squirrel tidbits:
The Latin word for squirrel, sciurus, translates to “shadow tail.”
In many Germanic languages the word for “squirrel” translates to “oak kitten.” (It’s Eichhörnchen in German.)
The Spanish word for “squirrel,” ardilla, translates to “like a flame.” (From arder, to burn.)
See “squirrel” translated into almost 300 languages, including Klingon, here.
And here’s my favorite cinematic squirrel sighting, or near-sighting:
Yes, I’m observing Festivus a few days early this year. The aluminum pole is looking handsomely unadorned (I find tinsel distracting), and I’m feeling confident about my chances in the Feats of Strength. But first, my favorite part of the Seinfeld-inspired holiday: The Airing of Grievances.
I’ll start with the most grievous of my 2012 grievances. Stick around – they get funnier and less lethal, I promise. (Past grievances: 2011, 2010, 2009.)
In a guest post for Duets Blog, I look at one of the most popular and persistent of all naming myths: the one about the Chevrolet Nova. The car hasn’t been produced since 1988, but the story about how the Nova name “failed” in Spanish-speaking countries—because it means “no go,” according to the legend—lives on.
Guess what? “Nova” isn’t “no va,” and the Nova sold well in Latin America.
Read the post to learn more about the “Nova” myth and why it has proved so surprisingly durable.
Is it time to rename the beleaguered Euro? The IPKat blog, which covers intellectual-property issues in Europe and the UK, wants your opinion. At this writing, voting is almost evenly divided among Neuro, BizMark, and Tenax (“Latin for frugal, grasping, obstinate and stingy”), but some of the runners-up are pretty clever, too: the Meou (“Memberstate European Operating Unit”), the Markel (a blend of the German mark and “Merkel”), the Ohno (no explanation required). You have till midnight (GMT) Sunday to vote. Via @igornaming.
“Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean ‘gets rid of dirt.’ (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean ‘too purple.’)” – “Picking a Brand Name in China Is a Business Itself,” New York Times, November 12. Pinyin News begs to differ: “Nope. The Mandarin name for Tide detergent is Tàizì. On the other hand, ‘too purple’ would be ‘tài zǐ,’ which is close but not the same.” (Hat tip: Ben Zimmer.)
I’m loving Word Soup, the new Wordnik series that covers “strange, obscure, unbelievable (and sometimes NSFW) words” heard on television. A few from the October 28 post: Apparition American (a euphemism for “ghost”), turfucken (“sex with ducks”), and volumptuous (a Snooki-ism that blends “voluptuous” and “lump”). And from November 9: Moneyed American (a euphemism for “rich person”) and jägerbar (a were-bear that hunts). Say, Wordnik, how about turning Word Soup into a book?
Speaking of TV, here in the US we’re impatiently awaiting Season 2 of Downton Abbey, coming to PBS January 8, 2012. In the meantime, Oxford Dictionaries gives us a guide to the language of the series, which is set in England just before and during World War I. No spoilers, thankfully, but plenty of interesting word histories—and some anachronisms, like “when push comes to shove,” which was primarily used in the US until 1958.
Speaking of science fiction (not really), the Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery is a database of “interesting language patterns and elements,” including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and “rhetorical maneuvers.” Search under the “clincher sentences” tag, for example, and read examples by Adam Gopnik, Todd Purdum, and Bill Bryson. Or: “Be of service to the universe by submitting examples that you yourself have discovered.” Fun and very, very useful. Via Sentence First.
Do you believe it’s a cardinal sin to begin a sentence with a conjunction or end a sentence with a preposition? You are, in a word, wrong. Paul Brians, keeper of the indispensable Common Errors in English Usage website, has compiled a list of non-errors: “those usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English.” Included: “over” vs. “more than,” “raise” vs. “rear,” “between vs. among,” and—of course—”hopefully” and “momentarily.” (The late William Safire called these non-errors “incorrections,” a label Language Log has adopted.)
I rarely post links to advice about writing because so much of it is tedious, dumb, or both. J. Maureen Henderson’s “How to Improve Your Writing,” which was published in Forbes last month, is different: it’s smart, practical, and funny. (First tip: “Do more of it. Maybe.” Second tip: “Read more. Possibly.”) The best piece of advice in the column: Edit other people’s work.
Downtown Los Angeles once had streets named Faith, Hope, and Charity. “This last one, Charity Street, was a nonstarter. No one wanted to ‘live on Charity,’ so it was renamed with the grand title of Grand Avenue.” More on L.A. street names in L.A. Downtown News.