April 01, 2008

Speculative semiotics of Northern European product names

Richard Morrison's 3/12/2008 column for The Times (London) ran under the title "The very Ikea: Denmark takes the floor in an entertaining feud", and began like this:

Not since Shakespeare declared that something was rotten in the state of Denmark have the inhabitants of that fair country been so disgruntled. A Copenhagen University academic has just produced some research that has shaken every Dane to his irreducible Viking core. He analysed all the products in an Ikea catalogue according to name. What he found was startling. It seems that Sweden's all-conquering furniture firm quite shamelessly names its fanciest futons, tables and chairs after Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian places, while reserving Danish place names for doormats, draught-excluders and cheap carpets.

Min gud, as they say in Danish. That has set the kat among the pigeons. The Danish press has accused Ikea of “symbolically portraying Denmark as the doormat of Sweden”. Ikea's response is that the Danes “appear to underestimate the importance of floor-coverings”. I can't work out whether that retort is a genuine attempt to smoothe ruffled feathers, or yet another sly Swedish dig at their neighbours. Either way, it hasn't helped to mollify the seething Danes.

Morrison doesn't tell us who the "Copenhagen University academic" in question was, but other coverage of the Great Danish Doormat Scandal identifies the professor as Klaus Kjøller, specialist in kommunikationsanalyse, massekommunikation, politisk kommunikation, interaktion, kulturanalyse, organisation, ledelse, ideologi, indoktrinering, indholdsanalyse, and sprogfilosofi.

And there was a lot of coverage. The story was apparently broken by Der Spiegel, and it was widely reproduced in UK newspapers: Linsay McIntosh and Allan Hall, "Ikea walking all over us, say angry Danes: Imperialism claim as Swedes give their mats Danish names", The Scotsman, 3/7/2008; "Ikea's cheap lines upset the Danes", 3/7/2008, The Telegraph; Claire Soares, "Ikea and loathing: What's in a product name?", The Independent, 3/7/2008; Roxanne Soroohian, "Is Ikea really trying to wipe the floor with Denmark?", The Sunday Herald, 3/8/2008; Haroon Siddique, "Ikea: closet imperialists?", The Guardian, 3/7/2008; "Skulduggery afoot at Ikea", The Scotsman, 3/7/2008

The story also made the news in Australia (Allan Hall, "Scandalised Danes say they won't be Swedish doormats", The Age (Melbourne), 3/8/2008), and was picked up by USA Today ("Ikea's naming system leads Danes to decry 'Swedish imperialism'", USA Today, 3/7/2008), though the rest of the U.S. mass media seem to have decided that a feud between Denmark and Sweden about the names of rugs was below the threshold of newsworthiness.

Regular readers of Language Log will now be able to predict the rest of this post. But cue the music anyway, and let's step through the familiar dance.

If you check the online version of the story in Business Week, "Danes Offended by IKEA's Product Names", 3/6/2008), you now find this notice:

This story, from content partner Spiegel Online International, has been removed at the request of Spiegel after evidence emerged that it contained inaccurate reporting.

And in place of the story at Spiegel Online ("Is IKEA Giving Danes the Doormat Treatment?", 3/6/2008), we read:

Last week, SPIEGEL ONLINE published an article about IKEA products named after Danish cities. We regret that we must retract the article because of inaccurate reporting. We apologize for the error.

In the article originally published at this address, SPIEGEL falsely reported that Danish researchers Klaus Kjøller and Trøls Mylenberg had conducted a "thorough analysis" of the naming conventions at Swedish furniture maker IKEA. In fact, Kjøller was approached by a journalist from the free daily Nyhedsavisen who had inquired about why apparently inferior IKEA products had been given the names of Danish towns.

Kjøller answered the question, but says he was very surprised by the "extremely exaggerated" article that appeared on the cover of Nyhedsavisen the following day, which would later get picked up by other media in Denmark and abroad, including SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"The story sounds good, but it unfortunately isn't true," Kjøller told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday. The author of the article and the editorial staff failed to contact Kjøller prior to the publication of the article.

SPIEGEL ONLINE strives to adhere to the highest standards of reporting and apologizes to its readers for the error, which we deeply regret.

The BBC was the only major British news provider not to reproduce the faked story. "We've changed our ways", said Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News. "You won't be seeing any more parrot telepathy, breast enlargement, or cow dialect stories from us. And if something slips through, we'll issue a prompt and prominent correction. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I learned the importance of a reputation for factual accuracy and honest admission of error."

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 1, 2008 07:12 AM