January 17, 2005

Parenthetical puns?

The Viennese architectural firm that just won the design competition for the new European Central Bank building in Frankfurt is called "Coop Himmelb(l)au". Their website suggests that the letter 'L' in the name should be subscripted (or at least lowered) as well as parenthesized: COOP HIMMELB(L)AU. Either they are not really serious about this part, or the newspapers are willing to accept parentheses in a name, but not subscripts.

HIMMELB(L)AU is a sort of pun: Himmelblau means "sky blue" in German, while Himmelbau would mean something like "sky building". There's a religious undertone missing in the English translations, since Himmel can mean "heaven" as well as "sky". There is probably also an echo of Hochbau, which can mean "building construction" or "structural engineering", with hoch meaning "high" or "tall" or "up". This substitution of Himmel for Hoch might remind others, as it does me, of Martin Luther's famous hymn Vom Himmel Hoch. And there are probably other elements in the name that would be apparent to someone who knows German well (as I do not).

Perhaps echoing the "sky building" pun, the winning entry includes a spread-out base called a "groundscraper", along with two twisted towers connected by an atrium which "serves as the communication hub with interconnecting platforms and communal areas. This satisfies two important elements of the competition brief, namely that the new premises should 'foster interactive communication' and 'promote teamwork'". Except, perhaps, for those suffering from acrophobia, among whom it seems likely to promote the screaming meemies.

Anyhow, word games are a lot easier if you get to parenthesize letters. I can't think of any other companies that have taken advantage of this possibility in constructing their names, though.

[Update: Tom Ace writes

The underwear brand 2(x)ist has a letter parenthesized (and superscripted to boot). It's not quite the pun that Himmelb(l)au is, but it does have a double (nay, exponential) meaning.

Yes. Perhaps it's only because I know English and mathematics better than I know German, but 2(x)ist seems to me to imply an even more elaborate set of puns than HimmelB(l)lau does. However,I guess you could argue that bringing in digits, mathematical parentheses, exponentiation and clothing sizes takes us out of the realm of purely linguistic puns where HimmelB(l)au operates. And in particular, the parentheses in 2(x)ist don't seem to mean "optionally leave this out", which was the trick I had in mind. Or is the equivalence "2ist" = "twist" supposed to be part of the package? ]

[Update 1/18/2005: Thomas Paul sent in a note from a German-speaking friend:

Himmelbau sounds for me more like "castle in the sky" and it doesn't have a religious undertone in this context, at least not for me. Or even more like "dream building". Building you ever dreamt of. Undertones in a language are a complex topic. "Himmel" can mean heaven and sky, but it has also a strong meaning of "great, fantastic", like himmelhochjauchzend (very happy). Might be that my grandma who is much more roman-catolic than I am sees an religious undertone. Am going to ask her, when i see her next time.



Posted by Mark Liberman at January 17, 2005 09:13 AM