When proper names become slurs – and Karen, Ben and Chad can rest assured, it’s nothing new
I spoke last week to Ellie Muir of the Independent about the way in which certain given names have recently been appropriated in popular culture and the media for use as labels, catch-all stereotypes – or slurs. One focus of Ellie’s piece is the use of the name Karen on social media and as a meme to evoke an over-assertive, unreasonably demanding or hypercritical white woman (memorably epitomised as ‘an antivaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair’). Karen is a Danish version of Katherine dating from the Middle Ages and adopted by English speakers from the 1940s. Originally a Black US nickname for a stereotypical white woman perceived as overbearing and entitled, Karen was most popular as a baby name in 1965 in the US, so would typically denote a Generation X female, it went viral in 2017.
In the USA in the early 80s Valley Girls and college students used to refer to their sporty, macho ‘jock’ contemporaries as biftads, inspired by the fact that many of them were nicknamed ‘Biff’ or ‘Tad’. Much more recently the online incel community of frustrated, embittered, uncharismatic males has used Chad to denote a successful alpha male who is popular with women (his black counterpart would be Tyrone).
In the UK names like Sharon, Tracy and Mandy were earlier employed to evoke stereotypical working class, vulgar females or chavs (notably in the sitcom Birds of a Feather and in Viz comic), while from the 70s through to the early 90s, Rupert, Tarquin and Nigel were used to mock supposed toffs or ‘posho’ males and are sometimes still heard today. Kevins or Kevs were uncouth, uncultured young British males from the end of the 70s until the end of the 90s, causing much amusement when the same name became cool and fashionable in the US and France in the 80s. Wayne was used in the same way. Around the same time London youths looking for dates referred to girls as Becks (this was pre ‘Posh and Becks’ as nicknames of a Spice Girl and her footballer escort by the way) because so many North London Jewish girls were called Rebecca or Becky. In the mid-2000s teenage girls thought to be too earnest, awkward or just unpopular were dismissed as Megs, the name possibly inspired by the daughter of the same name in the TV animated comedy Family Guy. Some older London males nicknamed middle-aged females, especially if deemed to be frumpish or charmless, Noras or Dorises.
We are halfway through January now. The Holibobs are over and we have come to the end of Chrimbo Limbo – that uncertain period between Christmas and New Year. Dishy Rishi is still in number 10 and, despite unprecedented crises in the health services (though the Panny-D seems to have subsided and Locky-D is just a memory) and family finances (in meltdown due to the Cozzi-Liv), we will have to wait until next year for a Genny-Lec (and perhaps the predicted Labby-Maj once the votes have been counted).In the midst of adversity, on social media (on Facey-B, Insta-G, and even Linky-D) the usual barrage of banter, badinage and bonhomie continues unabated nevertheless. As my Twitter friend Amanda comments…
‘Platty Joobs’ (for Platinum Jubilee in case you missed it) and ‘famalam’ have a Professor Stanley Unwin feel, for me and possibly others of my advanced years. Unwin was an eccentric old chap who used to perform monologues on the radio in the 1950s in which he mangled words and phrases and challenged listeners to interpret what he was saying. ‘Unwinese’ added nonsense syllables, reversed syllables, jumbled parts of sentences – like children’s nonsense stories and nursery and baby talk does. Exaltation of childhood by way of whimsy and nonsense (as in the works of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear) has been an enduring feature of Britishliterary and popular culture – perhaps a tactic by which we try to play down the dark side of life, smooth over social inequalities and make light of the blunders of our ruling class: deploying non-stop facetiousness, irony, cheek and irreverence in all everyday communications.
I spoke to Serena Smith, editor at Dazed Digital, about the sassy, cutesy – or cringe-inducing – humour involved in abbreviating, coining nicknames, dismantling and reassembling words and phrases in a particularly British manner, then a few days later answered questions on the same subject from Andrew Marr on LBC Radio. Serena’s article is here…
It’s heartening that, despite the seeming indifference of older commentators and experts, some, mainly younger academic linguists are beginning to study these developments, applying statistical techniques to tracking the spread of new terms and analysing specifics of their users. Dr Christian Ilbury of Edinburgh University, with whom I’ve exchanged ideas, has been doing this for some time and writes here of the online personas created and celebrated by new labels, catchphrases and in-jokes…
Following fashions is an exhausting task. And has become more exhausting still.
I have been recording the fads, fashions, cults and trends that energise popular culture, and the labels by which they register themselves on our collective consciousness, for more than thirty years. With the advent of the Internet and messaging the lifestyle innovations, aesthetic novelties and personal badges of allegiance are nowadays free to go viral, go global, and in many cases to disappear, virtually instantaneously. I talked to Olive Pometsey of The Face magazine (itself an iconic vehicle for the propagation of new ideas and images) about the latest, accelerated, overheated iterations of micro and macro-identities competing on online platforms. The equally frenzied quality of much comment and analysis is perhaps conveyed by the notes I made before we spoke…
Olive’s excellent article is here…
A crowdsourced, online, free-for-all, 24/7 source of slang, catchphrases and new terminology is my friend Aaron Peckham‘s Urban Dictionary. As the Face article was going to press this was its phrase of the day…
Coined by trend forecaster Sean Monahan, a vibe shift describes the emergence of a “new era of cool.”
Fashion is a realm that experiences frequent vibe shifts, especially with the arrival of a new decade. Gone are the days when frosted tips and low-rise jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch were in.
We’re in the midst of a vibe shift right now with the widespread lifting of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We’re going out again and adapting in new ways to our environment; some will survive the shifting tides, and some won’t.
Yeah I’m in my vibe shift right now. You won’t catch me in the club now that things are opening back up again. I’m all about going to the Home Depot, renovating my home and hearth, yknow? Once I tried topless gardening things changed a lot for me.
Those once-thriving subjects, Cultural Studies and Media Studies, which I used to teach in the 1990s, are nowhere to be found in today’s educational landscape, and the cultural practices we used to analyse are these days ignored by most commentators, the subcultures (and microniches, hyperlocal communities) if they are mentioned at all are dismissed by older cohorts as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. I doggedly persist, in solidarity with The Face, Wire, Dazed, i-D, TikTok, nanoinfluencers and microcelebrities, in finding them fascinating and significant.
Just a few days after the Face article appeared, the MailOnline announced the latest look for Summer 2022…
The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…
Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.
On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’
As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.
In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.
When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.
A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’
As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.
In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.
Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.
On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.
activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral
UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware (dating from an exhortation by blues singer Leadbelly in 1938 to ‘stay woke…keep your eyes open’) had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…
Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces
The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’
London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…
As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.
The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…
An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…
In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…
In late April, I came across a Twitter comment by Joshua Adams which sets out perceptively and pithily the links between the word’s transitions and Black responses to it…
JOSHUA@JournoJoshua Hope folks realize that a part of the reason the Right pounced on “woke” and now use it as a meaningless catch-all pejorative is because folks on the Left stripped it from its context in the Black experience, and made it mean “excessive social awareness.” It didn’t mean that.
Joshua more recently posted longer articles on the subject…
Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.
With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.
While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’
In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’
‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.
On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:
Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.
I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.
In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.
*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’
Tonight is Bonfire Night, Firework Night, nowadays usurped by Hallowe’en as the most popular celebration of autumn-to-winter transition, but still a folk festival of note. Many people are aware that the fires and fireworks commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, but few know more than the name of the terrorist whose effigy we burn on Guy Fawkes night.
The catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, who came from from Yorkshire, spoke French when captured and signed himself ‘Guido’, using the Italian or Spanish form of the name (his autograph, before and after torture had been applied, is below). He may have begun the practice when fighting in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, although Italian names were considered fashionable and were sometimes adopted by English gallants. Guy is the French form of old Germanic Wido, either meaning ‘dweller at the forest margin’ or a nickname from ‘wide’ as bodily description or location (an open, flat region).
The English surname Fawkes, also archaically spelled Fauks, Faukes and Fakes, derives from the German name or nickname Falco which probably originally referred to a person thought to resemble a falcon. Falco became Faulques in Norman French and was adopted after the Conquest, the first attestation coming from 1221.
While in London preparing to blow up parliament, Fawkes posed as a servant in the entourage of Thomas Percy, a fellow conspirator who had access to the parliamentary precincts. Fawkes’ less than imaginative choice of alias was ‘John Johnson.’
Guy’s wide-brimmed headgear, crudely imitated on effigies and now caricatured as a ‘V for Vendetta’ hat, is correctly termed a ‘sugarloaf hat’, since its high, flat-topped crown resembled the sugarloafs imported from the colonies in the Stuart period.
Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island is actually two small uninhabited islands and two smaller rocks lying in the Pacific Ocean off the Galápagos Islands which are owned by Ecuador. The name might have been given after a fiery volcanic event had been witnessed, but was more probably bestowed by buccaneers who viewed Guy as a hero and one of their own.
Fireworks did not just take off (pun intended) in England after the Gunpowder Plot. They first became popular in the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I loved them and appointed a ‘Firemaster of England’ to arrange displays.
Bonfire (first recorded in 1483) is not, as Dr Johnson and others have claimed, French ‘bon feu’, (French would be ‘feu de joie’, ‘grand feu’) but ‘bone-fire’, a collection of burning bones or an open fireplace or outdoor pyre into which bones were thrown, after feasting for instance. By 1581 the word was also being used to refer to a fire in which heretics were burnt.
Guy himself was not executed by burning, a fate reserved for those found guilty of heresy. He and the other condemned plotters were indeed Catholic dissidents, but the state wanted to avoid civil disturbances so accused them of treason, for which the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes managed to cheat the hangman by falling or throwing himself from the ladder leading to the scaffold, breaking his neck.
Guy Fawkes’s first name lived on, coming to mean by 1806 his effigy, then a grotesquely or poorly dressed person or eccentric. By extension a verb form arose (first attested in 1872) meaning to hold (someone) to ridicule. At the end of the 19th century in American colloquial usage the word had come to mean simply ‘a fellow’, from which we get our modern all-purpose, sometimes gender-neutral ‘guy’.
This week, very late in the day, the mainstream UK media and the wider national conversation finally caught up with a social and political slur that had been trending for more than a year already. The insult in question was ‘gammon’, one of only a couple of pejorative labels (the other, slightly more affectionate, being ‘centrist dad’) directed from the left at the right as opposed to the many (‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’, etc.) routinely hurled in the other direction.
The word itself is British and denotes an orange-coloured side or slice of cooked ham or bacon often proposed as emblematic of the garish-looking, odd-tasting and nutritionally suspect dishes served (warm, with a pineapple garnish) across British tables in the 1970s (when, ironically, ‘gammon rasher’ was rhyming slang for ‘smasher’ in the sense of something superlative). Gammon was adopted from French gambon, from gambe meaning leg, in the 15th century, while backgammon is unrelated and probably comes from an old form of the verb to game.
Following the Times’ , the Expressand the New Statesman’s belated discovery of the word Twitter was a-buzz on May 14, first with protests, many seemingly by gammons themselves, at what were alleged to be its racist and classist implications and then with more coherent attempts to unpack its real denotations and connotations.
Someone with the handle ‘Build a wall, line all the nazis up along it’ explained…
‘Gammon isn’t about class, it describes white ppl who spend a lot of their time being pink because they’re so angry being white doesn’t make them special’
Exasperated by ongoing witless misunderstandings, I added my own two-penn’orth…
‘Nothing to do with class, it denotes florid, loud, usually lardy middle-aged ranting bigots. #simples’
By midday someone else had discovered a reference in Victorian literature that seemed to anticipate the modern usage…
‘My god, he’s right: @Protooptimism has discovered that Dickens used “gammon tendency” as a political insult in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9):
It’s not quite clear whether Dickens’ use of the word relates to the slang sense then prevalent in the underworld, of ‘gammon’, verb and noun, to mean (‘to use) the secret, deceitful language of thieves and tricksters’, hence applicable perhaps to jingoism and bluster on the part of a ‘fervid’ middle-aged blowhard. An intriguing correlation with Irish was noted by another commentator…
(And in 2023 Michaela Perske informed me that ‘funnily enough “gammon” or “gamon” is a term used by Aboriginal people pretty much everywhere in Australia that means means ‘to pretend’, ‘be inauthentic’ or used to describe something as pathetic.’)
No linguists paid much attention at the time to the mutation of gammon from a collective term of abuse for a constituency or persuasion to a label applied to the individual members thereof. The BBC, though, carried a good, level-headed history of the expression’s first post- Brexit referendum appearances and its rise to prominence…
‘I’m a 55 year old white thinning cropped haired old punker. #Gammon isn’t racist, it perfectly describes the bigoted tossers of my own age group who turn pink when they get angry about their privilege being challenged. G’wan bust yer blood vessels you rancid foaming dinosaurs.’
…Five days on I discovered this, from the originator of the expression himself…
More thoughts about the perils, pitfalls and potentials involved in choosing brand and product names, prompted by the news that Corrections Corporation of America, which runs more than 70 prisons and houses 70,000 inmates around the country, is rebranding as CoreCivic. Mentioned in the following radio programme from long ago are the Škoda company name, from which the initial Czech ‘sh’ sound has subsequently been dropped for UK ads, and their daring product name Superb which has subsequently been validated by the car’s success.
The radio discussion took place before the days of podcasts, so this, courtesy of thenaming agency Igor, is a transcript.
This week has seen (rather belated) bemusement online at the car manufacturer Citroen naming one flagship model the Cactus*. They say the word alludes to its low consumption and ‘sober’ image and the rows of ‘airbumps’ on its sides, but for Australians cactus is slang for ‘broken (down)’.
I mentioned Citroen’s – and arch-rivals Peugeot’s – puzzling naming tactics in an article back in 2002:
BABY YOU CAN DRIVE MY… MAZDA BONGO FRIENDEE
Car names and linguistic confusion
Others checked out last month’s Geneva motor show for the cutting-edge automotive technology, but not me. I’m a car buff of a different sort; a connoisseur of exotic model names. The star of this year’s show was the new luxury model from Renault. They are aiming this radical monospace at the so-called e-segment, the executive saloon class which in their words is ‘a world governed by codes which are emblematic of established social norms and of conformism’ …h-m-m.
The name of this code-breaker? The ‘Vel Satis’. H-m-m-m-m…I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce rival Citroen’s Xsara or Xantia – or what they mean. Is Vel Satis another example of Gallic perversity?
When you talk to auto-marketers about product names they alternate between the arrogant we-know-exactly-what-we’re doing and the coy we’re-not-going-to-tell-you-how-we-chose-it. I’m convinced nevertheless that the psychological effect of foreign-sounding words can make or break a product in a particular market. Lancia’s ‘Dedra’ may sound beautiful to Italians but to anglo-saxons it suggests that something has died. The VW Bora has never taken off in the UK, where some ignorant punters also said that the excellent Sharan conjured up an Essex girl in white stilettos. As for the tiny Renault Twingo, it has never even been marketed in English-speaking markets, perhaps because it sounds like a chocolate bar.
Pronunciation problems can’t help. What did foreigners make of Cadillac’s unpronounceable Phaeton or Brougham? Come to that, how did English-speakers cope? Not many people can afford the Lamborghini Murcielago – it means ‘bat’ in Spanish – but if even one potential buyer is put off because he or she can’t say it, that’s more than £100K lost. And I’ve never seen a Lancia Ipsilon Elefantino, but with that name I have my doubts that it’s going to restore the marque’s reputation in the UK
Of course name buffs won’t be satisfied by Geneva, they are looking forward impatiently to October’s Tokyo show. Last year’s was particularly memorable with the unveiling of the Mazda Secret Hydeout, the Suzuki Afternoon Tea, the Mitsubishi Mini Active Urban Sandal, the Suzuki Van Van (which isn’t a van), and who can forget previous landmarks such as the Mitsubishi Mum, the Daihatsu D-Bag, the Toyota Synus.
Japanese manufacturers are reluctant to explain the names, but there are rumours: for instance that when Nissan’s boss asked for the name of a heroic mediaeval knight the Cedric was born. The Colt Starion was said to be a Japanese attempt to pronounce ‘Stallion’, which might also explain this year’s Comprex. And the Toyota Ist (rhymes with ‘list’), could that just possibly be a mis-pronunciation of 1st as in first? No comment.
We can mock but the simple fact is we don’t count. For Japanese and East Asian consumers it’s the shape of the word that pleases, and English sounds cool per se, but the meaning is utterly unimportant. Even when it’s a double meaning: Mitsubishi’s Pajero pronounced in Spanish sounds like the slang for ‘masturbator’, Fiat’s Marea comes out in Spanish as ‘seasickness’. We English speakers can’t be smug: how could we sell the Chevy Nova into Latin America, where no va means ‘won’t go’, or the Pinto, which means ‘small penis’ in Mexico? Or the Rolls Royce Silver Mist in Northern Europe where ‘mist’ translates as ‘crap’.
We’ve come a long way from the innocent early days of models with reassuringly trustworthy names; in the anglophone markets ‘Fidelity’, ‘Safeway’, ‘Utility’ were typical. The fifties and sixties promoted status with the aspirational ‘Ambassador’, or ‘Marquis’, yielding in the seventies to macho-but-naff ‘Marauders’, ‘Valiants’, ‘Cougars’.
It must be significant that today’s successful models mostly have invented ‘international’ names like Mondeo or Premacy, or initials and numbers like XS5 or V70, but some car-makers just don’t learn. Vel Satis? I was stumped; vel is latin for ‘or’ and satis means ‘enough’. Still stumped. A lady from Renault France told me the phrase was a pure invention, ‘it can mean whatever you want it to’, but is intended in French ears to evoke ‘luxury, perfume’, a tantalisingly upmarket je ne sais quoi. I’m worried that the average UK driver will think ‘well-satisfied’, more the aftermath of a good dinner than a mysterious perfume, but one Irish auto-journalist claims the roomy car is aimed at ‘lardy executives’ anyway.
We’ll have to wait for a few more months to see if Renault’s challenge pays off. In the meantime, I’m hoping that Tokyo can come up with something to top the Mitsubishi Lettuce.