I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).
A study of 597 logos found that “descriptive logos more favorably impact consumers’ brand perceptions than nondescriptive ones, and are more likely to improve brand performance.” (Harvard Business Review)
Old descriptive logos (left) vs. new nondescriptive logos (right).
“Companies change their slogans and catchphrases all the time to keep themselves fresh in customers’ minds. But DiGiorno might be the only one that has kept the same catchphrase, but changed the implication.” (Eater)
“Sometimes I look at license plates for new prefix ideas. Sometimes I borrow from the names of cats or dogs.” How two women in Chicago create all those names for generic prescription drugs. (David Lazarus for Los Angeles Times; via MJF)*
“Donald Trump is reinventing the kowtow for the Twitter age,” wrote David Rothkopf in a Los Angeles Times op-ed published November 3, just before Trump left for a 12-day, five-country Asia trip. Rothkopf cited Trump’s “fawning tweets” celebrating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “extraordinary elevation” at the 19th Chinese Community Party Congress – an elevation that cemented Xi’s authoritarian rule – and Trump’s “over-the-top” boast “that he and Xi had the best ‘president-president’ relationship ever.”
The previous week, the Guardian (UK) had used the same verb in a headline about Trump’s China visit.
In both instances, the choice of kowtow was revealing and contextually appropriate: the English word derives directly from a Chinese term, k’o-t’ou, whose literal meaning is “knock the head” – a gesture of extreme subservience.
Kowtowing before officials in Guangzhou, China, pre-1889. Via Hong Kong Free Press; the headline on the story reads “It’s time to stop the shameful kowtowing to China – before it’s too late.”
Do-it-yourself home security devices – connected to homeowners’ smartphones rather than to a security company or police department – represent a growing market. Most such devices cost around $200 and involve monthly fees of $10 to $50, but a Chinese smart-technology company, RippleInfo, has developed a security device with some attractive differences – notably, a lower initial price and no monthly fees.
Good news for liberal-arts majors: “Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.” (“The Next Hot Job in Silicon Valley Is for Poets,” Washington Post.)
Sad: Showing, expressing, or causing sorrow or gloom; depressing; inadequate.
Sad is neither new nor obscure: it’s been with us since Old English, and even young children understand at least one of its meanings. But it’s been in the foreground in recent months thanks to a series of tweets published by a front-runner in the U.S. presidential primaries. “I believe we may be witnessing an evolution in the use of that word,” said Mike Vuolo, co-host of the language podcast “Lexicon Valley” in a February episode. If so, it would be only the most recent twist in sad’s long and interesting history.
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.)
Petrel: Any pelagic seabird of the order Procellariiformes, in particular the shearwaters (Procellariidae), the storm-petrels (Hydrobatidae), and the diving petrels (Pelecanoididae). All have “long wings, mainly black (or grey or brown) and white plumage, and a slightly hooked bill with tubular external nostrils” (OED).
“Petrel” is the English translation of the Chinese word Haiyan, which is the international name of the “supertyphoon” that has ravaged large areas of the Philippines in recent days. (In the Philippines, the typhoon was called Yolanda.) The typhoon, one of the most powerful ever recorded, brought waves as high as 15 feet and may have a death toll of as many as 10,000 people, according to weekend reports. (Photos of the devastation here and here.)
The origin of the word “petrel” is “uncertain and disputed,” says the OED. A 17th-century spelling was pitteral; the Online Etymology Dictionary when the English explorer William Dampier recorded the modern spelling in 1703, he wrote that “the bird was so called from its way of flying with its feet just skimming the surface of the water, which recalls the apostle's walk on the sea of Galilee (Matt. xiv:28); if so, it likely was formed in English as a diminutive of Peter (Late Latin Petrus).” However, this is likely a fanciful folk etymology.
Although “storm petrel” is the correct ornithological term, a famous poem by Maxim Gorky has sometimes been translated from the Russian with the title “The Song of the Stormy Petrel,” and “stormy” frequently appears in the bird’s name. Here is one stanza as translated by Lyudmila Purgina:
The stormy petrel, screaming, hovers, As the black lightning in heavens, As an arrow, he is piercing The grey clouds, with his wing He is picking up the wave's foam.
The poem is a call for revolution written as a fable; after its publication in April 1901, Gorky was arrested and later released.
In 2007 the New York TimescalledGeneral Tso’s chicken the most famous Hunanese dish in the world. But the sweet-spicy deep-fried recipe didn’t originate with chefs in China’s Hunan Province, “who apparently had never heard of it until the opening of China to the West in recent decades.” So say Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler, whose comprehensive “How the Chicken Conquered the World” appears in the May issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Here’s their General Tso story:
The man generally credited with the idea of putting deep-fried chicken pieces in a hot chili sauce was the Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949. He named the dish for a 19th-century military commander who led the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, a largely forgotten conflict that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. Peng moved to New York in 1973 to open a restaurant that became a favorite of diplomats and began cooking his signature dish. Over the years it has evolved in response to American tastes to become sweeter, and in a kind of reverse cultural migration has now been adopted as a “traditional” dish by chefs and food writers in Hunan.
You won’t find General Tso’s chicken at the 3,000 KFC outlets in China, write Adler and Lawler. The chain—which is more profitable in China than in the United States—“has thrived by offering the Chinese customers food they were already familiar with, including (depending on the region) noodles, rice and dumplings, along with chicken wraps, chicken patties and chicken wings, which are so popular … that the company periodically has to deny rumors it has a farm somewhere that raises six-winged chickens.”