This month I’ve been reading Stiffed: The Roots of Modern Male Rage, by Susan Faludi. Actually, I’ve been re-reading it; the book was originally published in 1999 with the subtitle The Betrayal of the American Man and was reissued in 2019 with a new author’s foreword that adds a Trump-era, #MeToo perspective. Faludi is a superb researcher, interviewer, and writer (and believe me, that’s a tough trifecta), and Stiffed—what a perfect title—holds up shockingly well. Faludi’s mid-1990s reporting took her to Vietnam veterans, diehard Cleveland Browns fans, an Alternatives to Violence group, laid-off defense workers, and meetings of Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s association. She investigates the post-World War II redefinition of masculinity as “something to drape over the body, not draw from inner resources” and to be “displayed, not demonstrated.” I couldn’t help reflecting on Stiffed when I read a recent New York Times roundtable discussion with eight men who described themselves as politically conservative and who repeatedly expressed a wistful longing for days gone by—the same days, some 25 years ago, that Faludi wrote about: a time of layoffs and gang violence and painful domestic rifts. Moral: Beware the nostalgia trap and the Golden Age fallacy; there never were any good old days, except for the ones that seemed good because you were a little kid and didn’t know any better. (You may also be interested in the letters to the editor about that roundtable discussion. I’ve unlocked both links so that nonsubscribers can access them.)
“Russia Inches Toward Its Splinternet Dream” reads the headline on an April 1, 2022, story in Wired by Chris Stokel-Walker. It was no April Fools’ Day joke: The story describes how, in early March, Twitter users in Russia noticed that their internet connections had slowed to a crawl and eventually halted. “Then came the blackout”:
Twitter going offline showed how seriously the Russian state took social media’s role in amplifying dissent about the country’s invasion of Ukraine. And it demonstrated Russia’s progress in creating a “splinternet,” a move that would effectively detach the country from the rest of the world’s internet infrastructure. Such a move would allow Russia to control conversations more tightly and tamp down dissent—and it's getting closer by the day.
“Splinternet” is newly in the news, but the term is more than 20 years old. A nearly perfect portmanteau word, it was coined in 2001 by Clyde Wayne Crews, director of technology studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. In an editorial for Forbes magazine, Crews envisioned splinternets as essentially good things, asking, “How about more Internets, not more regulations?” He continued, libertarianally:
I’m about halfway through Virginia Postrel’s 2020 book The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, and the only reason I haven’t finished it is because I keep stopping to take notes, usually punctuated with exclamation marks. Postrel is a journalist and independent scholar who has written very good books about style and glamour; here she elegantly blends centuries of research and her own investigations (she learned to spin thread, spent a week at a traditional Indian dyeing school, and visited weavers of Guatemalan huipiles) into a highly readable and compelling history. The glossary alone is worth the investment in the book. As Postrel writes:
We drag our heirloom metaphors—“on tenterhooks,” “towheaded,” “frazzled”—with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibers. We repeat threadbare clichés: “whole cloth,” “hanging by a thread,” “dyed in the wool.” We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We speak of life spans and spinoffs and never wonder why drawing our fibers and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.
“The Internet Is Rotting,” reads the headline, and it’s no overstatement. The article beneath the hed, published in The Atlantic on June 30, 2021, was written by Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard who has spent a lot of time thinking about the World Wide Web and its discontents. He’s worried, as we all should be, about the alarming impermanence of our digital artifacts. And he’s proposing solutions.
Mountain Dew, the neon-yellow-green soft drink brand owned by PepsiCo, evidently failed to consult anyone in Scotland before it introduced its new ad slogan, “Epic thrills start with a chug.” If it had, it would have learned that chug is Scottish slang for masturbate. (Jelisa Castrodale for Vice, via Language Log)
That word: It does not mean what you think it means. Not in Scotland, anyway. (Via @jaysebro)
Sad Internet: “A place full of unwatched videos, unliked photographs, unheard music, tweets that no one cared about, and crowdfunding projects that nobody backed.” – Rob Walker.
In an article for Yahoo! Tech published last week, Rob Walker takes a mournful look at websites that fit neither of the Internet’s dominant tropes: Happy (“delightful and hilarious memes and GIFs and videos made by GoPro-wearing puppies”) and Angry (“nasty troll attacks, flame wars, and outrage galore”). “Some manifestations of the Sad Internet,” Walker writes, “make a mockery of the pervasive cliché of the magical technology that connects us all, builds community, and generally permits the ‘crowd’ to find and reward the wonderful.”
Among those manifestations (with my naming notes):
Forgotify:Walker writes that this site “plumbs Spotify’s unheard depths to present you with a random m selection from the zero-listen archives.” The -ify name, overplayed as it is, seems perfectly ironic here. And I appreciate the rhyme with Spotify.
No Likes Yet: “All the photos on Instagram with no likes yet.” I agree with Walker about the agreeable “note of optimism, or at least yearning” in that Yet. But the name suffers a little for not riffing more directly on Instagram. (Instagrump? Un-stagram? Disinstergram?)
Sad Tweets: “Connect the application to your Twitter account, and it presents you with a lowlights reel of your attempts at ‘sharing’ that attracted no likes, and no retweets.” Another brutally descriptive name, which probably is as it should be.
Kickended: What happens to Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns that don’t raise a single dime? Kickended happens. Walker: “It’s a useful, albeit bleak, reality check. Yes, the Internet makes magic and wondrous and unprecedented things occur. But only sometimes, and not for everyone.” The name falls short of its goal, too: Kicked to the Curb is more to the point.
Fukubukuro: Grab bag or mystery bag containing unidentified items and sold at a substantial discount. Literally “lucky bag.” From Japanese fuku (“lucky”) and fukuro (“bag”); fukuro changes to bukuro because of a Japanese morphological phenomenon called rendaku, which affects the initial voicing of consonants.
A Japanese New Year’s custom since the late Meiji period (early 20th century), fukubukuro were introduced by Tokyo’s Ginza Matsuya department store and later spread to other retail establishments. Merchants in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center adopted the tradition in 2004, and many Sanrio stores in the United States observe it as well.
Meh—an interjection meaning “I’m unimpressed” whose coinage is often attributed to the cartoon character Lisa Simpson—is the deliberately under-promising name for a site whose creators say will “keep it simple and stupid” by presenting a single deal each day:
It may amuse you. It may perform a necessary function in the digestive system of capitalism. Once in a while, it may even offer a kick-ass deal on something you actually want. But it isn't going to change your life, or give you more powerful orgasms.
As for the fukubukuro reward, it’s
a century-old tradition we're borrowing from the Japanese, where people buy crap in bags sight unseen and then are crushed by the inevitable, certain disappointment. (And for this Kickstarter-edition fukubukuro, we created a custom, original, one-page comic that you could call collectible if you have little understanding of that word.)
“The possibilities are literally unlimitless!” the copy concludes with feigned, oh-so-ironic enthusiasm.
Meh is a project of Mediocre Laboratories, whose low-expectations name I wrote about last year. Matt Rutledge, Mediocre’s founder, “founded e-commerce site Woot a decade ago and is generally considered the granddaddy of the daily deal,” writesTechCrunch reporter Ryan Lawler. Amazon bought Woot for $110 million in cash in 2010.
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)
The business and techbloggers who covered the episode found nothing amiss in the story. But to anyone who knows how business names work, it betrays the naïveté of the show’s creators.
The protagonist of “Silicon Valley” is a programmer, Richard, who’s inadvertently developed a file-compression algorithm. For reasons that haven’t yet been explained (and may never be), he named the algorithm—and the start-up he creates around it—“Pied Piper.”
Everyone but Richard hates the name. But that’s not his biggest headache.