April 21, 2007

Automotive naming (and more)

The Lancer Evolution is, according to the Wikipedia page, "Mitsubishi's flagship sports car", in production since 1992 and now up to 2007 model X (that's a Roman numeral, not an unknown quantity).  The name "Evolution" was probably chosen to suggest progress, but it occurred to Swarthmore biologist Colin Purrington a little while back to wonder whether the name might be a drawback in parts of the U.S. where creationist, rather than Darwinian evolutionist, ideas have considerable currency -- places where, you might say, "evolution" is a dirty word.  Being a scientist, Purrington collected some data (from Mitsubishi) and assembled a nifty graph, headed "'Evolution' car dissed by Red States":

Purrington's comments:

The quote is from the official marketing web site. There are no plans to release a "Lancer Creation" version, as far as I know. Las Vegas is probably driving the odd sales data for Nevada (it was a filming location for the Evolution-featurin' flick, "Too Fast Too Furious", I think). Not sure what is up for Maine. I probably need to rerun the statistics using "18-44 males" to get a more accurate estimate of the underlying car-buying population that favors Rally and NASCAR models. And, to be fair, I should include a control car (e.g., Galant) from Mitsubishi, just in case the red states have a tendency of "buying American", which probably plays a part in these data.

(Ah, not "2 Fast 2 Furious" (2003), which was set in Miami and filmed in various Floridian locations, but "Redline" (2007); both movies destroyed a lot of cars and were not well received by critics, so it would be easy to confuse them.)

Some statistical tests wouldn't be a bad idea, either.  But this is a beginning.

(Purrington's website has some neat stuff on it, though nothing obviously relevant to linguistics.  But if you want information about the horrifying parasitic plant dodder (Cuscuta), with photos, this would be a good place to go.)

How did I get involved in all of this?  About a month ago, Purrington wrote to me to say that he had come across my "page on the Lancer" and wondered if I could help him find sales data for the Evolution.  I was baffled for a moment, until I realized that a web search on "Lancer Evolution" (or something similar) had pulled up my Language Log posting "Mitsubushi?" of last spring -- which quoted a newspaper article in which the Lancer Evolution happened to be mentioned.  Ah, the wonders of the web.  In any case, the staff here at LLP had nothing to offer him, but he eventually got data straight from the company.

(For bibliographically inclined readers: there is a dissertation (abstract here) based on a large corpus of American car names:  Ingrid Piller, American Automobile Names, Ph.D. dissertation (1996), Department of English and American Studies, Dresden University of Technology. And let's not forget Mark Aronoff's 1981 article "Automobile semantics", in, of all places, Linguistic Inquiry (12.329-47).)

Every so often, automobile names get media attention, usually because they're claimed to be offensive or unfortunate, even more unfortunate than "Evolution" might be in creationist households.  Back in 2003 we had the "LaCrosse" story:

Strange News - AP
GM Drops Risque-Named Buick Car in Quebec
Thu Oct 23, 4:53 PM ET

NEW YORK -  It's all in the name. General Motors Corp. has scrapped plans to replace the Buick Regal with the Buick LaCrosse in Canada because in the French-speaking province of Quebec "lacrosse" means to masturbate. Among other things. 

 GM Canada spokesman Stew Low told the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin last Friday that in Quebec youth culture the word is a new slang term

 "(It) means a couple of things, either to masturbate or 'I just got screwed,' or 'I just got taken'" Low told the newspaper in Saturday's copyright editions. "People of our age wouldn't even think twice about (the word.)" 

 He told the paper he first learned of the new slang usage about six weeks ago. In organized focus groups in Quebec, young participants giggled when they heard the named of the new car, Low said. 

 La Crosse Mayor John Medinger said Friday was not aware of the slang in Canada until the Tribune told him. 

 "These slang phrases come and go, and hopefully this one won't stick around too long," Medinger was quoted in the paper. 

 GM has not said when the Buick LaCrosse will debut. The company said plans to replace the Buick Regal with the Buick LaCrosse in the U.S. will continue, but will give the new car a different name in Canada.

At the time, I thought the whole business was rather silly, and said so on the newsgroup sci.lang (10/26/03):

Notice the "among other things", and the information that this meaning is recent youth slang.  A word used to refer to a stick, club, etc. is always open to taking on a penis-related slang meaning.  I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that somewhere in the French-speaking world, the name of the Buick LeSabre causes some people to giggle.  Undoubtedly there are plenty of other examples.  (Surely "Volvo" is  problematic SOMEWHERE.  "Hummer" gives ME a little giggle, as a matter of fact.  "BMW" has "BM" in it.  And so on.)

Given that, you can scarcely fault the naming folks at Buick, who were probably trying to evoke the image of lacrosse the sport and perhaps the lakes and forests of Wisconsin.  If they understood the extended meanings of "cross(e)" as stick or club, they would probably have viewed them as an extra advantage, a subliminal suggestion of masculine power (a very highly desirable message in automobiles, apparently).  They could hardly be expected to have surveyed slang usages throughout the world; almost anything would be edgy someplace.

But of course this became a story, so now they have to be circumspect.

The topic then shifted on sci.lang to another case, the Mitsubishi Pajero (called Montero in Spain), "pajero" having the slang sense 'masturbator, wanker, jack-off' in Spain and significant parts of Latin America.  Miguel Carrasquer Vidal pointed out that the usage was not new and was pretty widespread, so this one was much more serious than "lacrosse", and I pointed out that "pajero" seemed to have no widespread use in any other sense; so Mitsubishi should have caught it.

Some people collect what they see as bad car names -- Bill Casselman on the "auto-neo-kako-nymia" page of his blog, for example.  He's contemptuous of car companies in general, lambasting them for (among other things) failing to catch names that might work badly for some people in some places, which I think is an impossible standard to expect.  So he treats cases like the LaCrosse, the Ford Pinto ("in the Portuguese slang of Brazil, pinto means 'penis'"), the Ford Probe ("an automobile or a proctological procedure?"), the Mazda LaPuta ("'the whore' in Spanish"), the Toyota Fiera ("in Puerto Rico, fiera means 'ugly old woman"), the Rolls Royce Mist ("in German, Mist means 'dung, manure, or pile of shit'"), the Opel Ascona ("means 'female genitalia' in parts of Spain and Portugal"), and the Honda Fitta ("means 'cunt' in Swedish" -- it was renamed the Honda Jazz) as on a par with the Pajero.  He does at least dismiss as myth the claim that the Chevy Nova couldn't be sold in Latin America because Spanish "no va" means 'it doesn't go'.

Beyond what I see as an impracticable goal here, there's a subtler point: all of this discussion seems to assume that people can't cope with homophones (or homographs), so that identity in sound (or spelling) to a problematic item is enough to condemn a word.  Things are much more complicated than that in the real world.  Some homophones are just too obtrusive, but many pass by without a problem, with the intended item clear from context and the problematic item out of consciousness: in non-sexual contexts, we can use words like the following without tripping over a potential 'penis' meaning:

bishop, ferret, gun, hose, member, monkey, organ, rod, sausage, shaft, snake, stick, tool; the names Dick, Johnson, Peter, Willy

French Canadians can refer to Canada's national summer sport as "lacrosse" without embarrassment; how else would they talk about it?  And so on.  Teenaged boys might sometimes snicker, but the rest of us shouldn't be held hostage to the sexual preoccupations of teenaged boys ("She said tool!").

Enough of cars.  Other product names have come in for criticism.  For instance, last July, when Microsoft confirmed rumors that it was going to release a rival to the iPod/iTunes, and announced that its product was named "Zune", critics jumped on it.  One blogger called it the "worst product name since Windows Vista", and a great many people played with puns on the name.  In addition, very early on, bloggers began reporting that  "Zune" sounded just like the Hebrew word for 'fuck', and the story was picked up in the media.  By the time Evan Bradley had alerted us at LLP to this flap, in October, the blogosphere was full of people noting that [zu:n] was close to the Hebrew taboo word, but quite distinct from it, and we voted not to blog about this silliness.  But now I'm inflicting it on you.

Also released last year was Nintendo's Wii, pronounced [wi:], intended to evoke "we", but suggesting childish urination to many (and, no doubt, smallness to many people in Scotland).  The BBC reported that "a long list of puerile jokes, based on the name" appeared immediately after the launch.  The product seems to have survived the grade-school humor handily, beating out its rivals in sales.

I don't want to turn this posting into a survey of product names and their difficulties; there's a considerable literature about this kind of naming, and though I know people who do this sort of thing, it's not something I know a lot about.  Instead, I'm looking at people's responses to names, suggesting that these might sometimes guide their behavior ("Evolution"), and that they sometimes can make names very problematic indeed ("Pajero"), but also that objections to names can be out of proportion to their potential offense ("Wii").

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 21, 2007 03:22 PM