The two examples I look at both come from car ads. Here’s Jon Hamm introducing the Mercedes C-Class Coupe: “More power. More style. More technology. Less doors.”
Impressive visuals, but less doors? Not fewer?
In a more playful mood, here’s Honda cheerfully employing singular they:
“To each their own”?
Access to the column is restricted to VT subscribers; here’s an excerpt:
As someone who's spent my professional life in and around advertising, I can assure you that the writers responsible for these ads are in command of the English language, are fully aware of the rules, and broke them intentionally. Ad writers do this all the time: their goal, after all, is to make you stop and pay attention, and word play, word invention, and — yes — unconventional grammar are time-honored ways of accomplishing that end. (For other examples, see my columns on the Hanes Lay-Flat Collar and on “Rethink Possible” and “Think Different.”)
Copywriters also count on the Pareto principle, sometimes called the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of people who encounter the “bad” grammar either won't recognize it as “bad” or will recognize it and not care. (They may even see it as a positive attribute.) Only 20 percent will object strongly enough to raise a fuss (the Honda ads exhibit “tragically bad grammar”; the Mercedes campaign represents “language malpractice”), and that fuss will simply serve to draw more attention to the campaign.
But let’s take this a little further. You and I may indeed have been taught that the rules about less/fewer and singular/plural are inviolable. (I know I was.) But it turns out they aren’t. Not only that: the rule-breakers have a lot of history on their side.
Semmelweis reflex: The tendency to reject new evidence because it contradicts established norms or practices. Named for the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), now considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures. His observation that hand-washing greatly reduced childbirth mortality was dismissed by most of his fellow physicians, who took offense at being told to wash their hands.
In a paradoxical twist, the Semmelweis reflex has been invoked in recent years by people who oppose a medical advance—namely, childhood vaccination. “Today’s vaccine injury denialism is a modern-day Semmelweis reflex,” wrote Ginger Taylor in “The Role of Government and Media,” a chapter in the anti-vaccine book Vaccine Epidemic (2011). (Taylor is not a physician.) The Semmelweis Society International, whose stated mission is “to expose the ‘sham peer review’ of medical professionals, nurses, and physicians when they are wrongfully accused of acts that can result in the loss of their clinical privileges,” has defended Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist whose study connecting childhood vaccines with a variety of ailments, including autism, has been definitively debunked. (For a thorough recap of the Wakefield story, read the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry.)
Semmelweis is frequently invoked by anti-vaccinationists. While explaining to me why the “mainstream” ignored Andrew Wakefield, one of his supporters and financial backers said, “We know there’s never been a time in history when people, in a short period of time, have looked at the data and thought, ‘Oh, we have a problem here,’ or even, ‘We might have a problem here—maybe you should wash your hands after you dissect bodies and before you go deliver babies.’ God forbid you should wash your hands!”
The Semmelweis reflex, Mnookin writes, is “a variation on the Galileo Gambit, whereby someone whose work is debunked argues that the fact that Galileo’s work was also debunked proves he is actually correct.”
In a Republican presidential-primary debate held in early September, candidate Rick Perry strode (or swaggered) into the Galileo controversy when he asserted that the issue of climate change remains “unsettled.” “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said.
The Texas governor got it exactly wrong, explains The Atlantic Wire:
[W]hat Perry fails to realize is the fact that the scientific community actually agreed with Galileo. It was the clergy who outvoted him, accusing him of being a heretic. “By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits,” explains Joshua Rosneau from the National Center for Science Education. “He wasn’t outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country.” [Emphasis in original.]
Above: Portrait of Ignaz Semmelweis at age 42, from Wikipedia.
This little dictionary, sturdily bound in chipboard*, captures a fascinating cultural moment when, as the Introduction puts it, “the boundaries between jargon and slang” were “smudged,” and “accelerated cross-pollination” between jargon and slang was occurring “through newsgroups, email, BBSes, Web pages, and trade shows.” To keep up, you needed a pocket-size reference book like Jargon Watch.
Let me set the scene. When the book was published in 1997, Wired was just four years old. The Web as we know it was almost as youthful: Netscape Navigator, then the big name in browsers, was just three years old. There was no Google, no Facebook, no Flickr, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no Twitter. Mobile phones were rare. There were just a handful of blogs. (Blogger, the first blogging software for non-techies, was founded in 1999.)
So what were the trendy terms between May 1993 and December 1996, the period captured in the book?
I’ll start with the handful of words and phrases that have survived: astroturfing (cited in the book as “astroturf campaign”), barfogenesis, bio break, brain fart, cybrarian, data mining, drill down, facetime**, going postal, hive mind, permalancer***, quants, road rage, Silicon Alley, trolling, Webmaster, and YMMV.
Then there are the rest of the words, the linguistic curios and white elephants that remind or enlighten us about the demands, annoyances, and fixations of that not-so-long-ago era, the mid-1990s. Here are some of my favorites:
“Electric when you want it, gas when you need it.”
That’s also the tagline being used on Chevy’s underwriting credit on KQED-FM, my local NPR station.
Things could get interesting if Zipcar, the car-sharing service in the US, Canada, and the UK, adds Volts to its fleet. Zipcar’s slogan has been “Wheels when you want them” since at least 2006.
San Francisco-based Esurance, which is owned by insurance giant Allstate, has used “People when you want them. Technology when you don’t” as its slogan since June 2010. The slogan appears on the website and in all ads.
The campaign is called “Techie Feely”; the photos above depict Chad (on the left) and Sanjeev, who represent, respectively, “Feelies” and “Techies.”
I don’t have a grand theory about the popularity of “X when you want it/them,” but it looks to me like the latest iteration of the “YOU” ads that have been around for a couple of years. I wrote about that trend in November 2009 and in February 2010.
I’d hoped never to revisit the subject of -ly names, which I covered—exhaustively, I thought—in an August post that listed 29 such names, including Chirply, Erply, Zerply, and Estately. But a news item on TechCrunch today makes a follow-up inevitable, if not welcome.
The item: Enterprise applications and services company Infor has paid $100,000 for Local.ly. “.ly” is the country code for Libya.
The same post noted that Facebook last month paid an undisclosed sum for Friend.ly.
Adverb-style names: the trend without end.
More evidence: Twitter friend Anthony recently pointed me to 500 Startups, which provides seed funding for new companies. Anthony wanted me to check out those companies’ names. “Brace yourself,” he warned.
Indeed. The companies themselves may be innovative, but you’d never know it from their names. We’re still seeing droppd vowls (Forrst, GoVoluntr, Redeemr, Spinnakr), diacritical abuse (Cădee, a golf site), multiple Dailys (DailyAisle, DailyGobble, DailyWorth), and -ly names. Lots of -ly names. (And one “-li” name.)
The 500 Startups roster includes:
Central.ly, “connecting local businesses to the web.”
Contactually, “an email interface for your CRM.”
Graphic.ly “provides an immersive social experience and marketplace around digital comics and associated merchandise.”
Lovely “takes the frustration out of your apartment hunt.” (I’ve included this -ly name even though it’s an adjective, not an adverb. To me it suggests a fashion or beauty site—or online dating—rather than “this lovely apartment.”)
Recurly “gracefully handles all the complexities of subscription billing and recurring payments.”
Rewardli “lets self-employed and small business owners leverage the buying power in their social networks so they can get better deals on the products and services they need.”
Texting.ly “enables businesses to easily and inexpensively interact.”
More evidence: Last week I read on TechCrunch about Womply (“Amazing offers loaded to your credit cards”). Womply has a cartoon mascot, Mr. Wombat. I can’t explain the shift from B to P; I’m guessing “Wombly” would have risked sounding like an obstetrics service.
Last week also brought news, via email, of Grammarly, which calls itself “the world’s best grammar checker,” an audacious assertion that remains to be proved. I ran a short passage from one of my recent blog posts through Grammarly; it dinged me on “passive voice use” and “writing style” without telling me why. If anyone’s tried the service and has good (or bad) things to say about it, please let me know.
And still more: Book.ly calls itself “the better way to buy textbooks.” Posterly has something to do with posters, events, and venues, but the writing is so vague and amateurish I couldn’t tell for sure. (“Browse posters, listen and see where it’s going on” does not tell me anything I need to know. “It”?)
Finally—or so one hopes—there’s Yummly (“Every recipe in the world”). The enterprise is well funded, the site is attractively designed, and the brand is cleverly extended (the blog is called “Nibbles & Bits”), but the name is, um, repeating on me.
If you’re keeping score, we’re up to 43 -ly names.
UPDATE #2, Nov. 11: Oh look, another -ly startup: Giftly.
The last laugh belongs to Jotly (“Rate Everything”), a fake and very funny enterprise from Firespotter Labs. Jotly’s home page declares “Everything about your life is exciting. To everyone.” The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal notes that the Jotly video “manages to send up nearly every startup cliché in just two minutes.” See for yourself:
The real Mr. T—born Lawrence Tureaud in 1952—is still around. He wrestled and played football in high school, served in the US Army, then worked as a nightclub bouncer, where he created his Mr. T persona. (He wore gold chains and other jewelry that had been lost or left behind by customers.) He had small roles in movies (DC Cab, Rocky III), but his big break came when he joined the cast of The A-Team, the NBC action-adventure series that ran from 1983 to 1986. As Sgt. B.A. Baracus—“B.A.” stood for “Bad Ass”—his signature line was “I pity the fool.”
Malcolm Gladwell considers the late Steve Jobs andSteve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the Apple co-founder, in the November 14 issue of the New Yorker:
The famous Apple “Think Different” campaign came from Jobs’s advertising team at TBWA\Chiat\Day. But it was Jobs who agonized over the slogan until it was right:
They debated the grammatical issue: If “different” was supposed to modify the verb “think,” it should be an adverb, as in “think differently.” But Jobs insisted that he wanted “different” to be used as a noun, as in “think victory” or “think beauty.” Also, it echoed colloquial use, as in “think big.” Jobs later explained. “We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently’ wouldn’t hit the meaning for me.”
Murmuration: The collective noun for a flock of starlings. Attributed since about 1450, “one of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated” (OED). Revived and popularized in the 20th century.
European starlings are regarded as pests in the US, but it’s hard not to be awestruck by their flocking behavior, which is no less magnificent for its being a survival function. In this video, which went viral last week, British artists Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith capture a murmuration during their canoe trip on the River Shannon in Ireland. Watch:
The intent is clear enough—the bubbly hearts drive it home—but the English is, to put it charitably, unidiomatic.
Sunlee outdoor ad, Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
It’s the sort of awkward phrasing you might expect to find on the Engrish website or in one of linguist Victor Mair’s “lost in translation” posts on Language Log. But I spotted the billboard near San Francisco’s Civic Center on one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in the city. (This stretch of Van Ness Avenue is also US 101.) The message is pretty clearly directed at the English-speaking market.
The advertiser, Sunlee, is based in Thailand but has two corporate offices in California, where there are many English-speaking copywriters who might have suggested a more felicitous headline before the big bosses ordered an expensive billboard.
On the other hand, “Aroma that you will fall in love” does have a certain enigmatic, even poetic, charm.