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GP 16 May 2007: The Name Game

Cod Piece.  For some a codpiece is armament men wear to protect or, on occasion, to emphasize their vitals.  For us it is cod done right, fish cooked without ornament so that you can actually taste it.  The other night we had it done lightly in sake, fortunately without benefit of the miso-plus recipe that Nobu created and which has since become a formulaic offering at Japanese and fusion restaurants around the world.

In food (and in about everything else) there’s a tipoff these days if the name of an item—and the one liner accompanying it—is too elaborate and gushy.  Basically it means that it won’t be right, and that an excess of punctuation, exclamation, and coloring are being used to cover up a lack of cuisinary knowledge.  That is particularly disastrous with fish where the taste of the sea can so easily be lost.

As you will remember, the French of old had an excuse for too much elaboration.  Sauces were used to obscure bad ingredients, particularly poor cuts of meat and the like.  Cooking became the art of disguise.  Even today, especially in poor parts of various countries, excessive spicing and other furbelows are used to hide tasteless ingredients often lacking in food value.  Beware overlarded menus.

Plain and Simple.  Over the years, we have had more to do than we would like with the naming of companies and products.  There’s a whole industry built around this naming of things that gives very expensive, often mistaken advice to the world’s biggest companies for which corporate chieftains pay a wad.  Then they brag about their new monikers.  It gets harder and harder to find blunt, hardheaded business people who think it’s all right to use names like U.S. Steel, Ford Automotive, Lava soap, or RCA Records.

The granddaddy of the naming firms was Lippincott and Marguiles, now called Lippincott, and merged with an insurance broker.  Back in the good old days it was headed by Walter Marguiles, who wooed companies into the fold, and Gordon Lippincott, who did the designs.  Margulies was a devil of a salesman: one of his former lieutenants said that the new idea Walter heard in the morning became the insight he spouted in the afternoon.  The very bright Gordon Lippincott, quite a good sailor, got tired of the name game after a while, and retired to his handsome Connecticut house on the Sound.  Now the firm, and all the firms that sprang from it, are into branding and other folderol. And, in its nameless way, it has more or less wiped its founders Lippincott and Marguiles off its website and out of its memory.  These naming and branding firms have an unfortunate habit of destroying the past.

Years ago a journalist from USA Today called us, in a panic, wondering what to write about corporate identity—the favorite title then for the name change game.  We said, “Simple.  Use these 3 firms in your article: they’re the biggies.  And then write up how absurd the handles are that they conjure up.  It will get you a lot of readers and provide a few laughs.”  We joked about the absolutely ridiculous names corporate America had bought into.  To the great embarrassment of our partners, the reporter used an off-the-record remark from us in the article that followed.  We had said, about the new name of a Midwest firm, “It sounds like a gum disease.”  Indeed, it did, but we got a slew of fiery, vitriolic phone calls from America’s heartland in protest.

At any rate, if a company, or a product, or a service, or a government agency adopts a New Age name, or talks about itself in vague symphonic language, you know that all is not right at the store.  We even counsel investors to stay away from companies that cannot say what they are in six simple words.  An iffy name hints that you will not eat well at a restaurant, but it also reliably predicts that you will have an unpleasant out-of-body experience with a company.

Miami Vice.  We heard a story about the long playing TV drama Miami Vice which we have always taken to be gospel.  Supposedly the creators of the show went out to lunch one day to brainstorm what it would be all about.  By meal’s end, they had got it down on a napkin.  After all the talk, the napkin only said, “MTV plus cops and robbers.”  That simply stated their formula for a winner.  And, indeed, one often remembers more about the music and Don Johnson’s clothes than about any of the tawdry plots.  What lives on are the images of souped-up Miami, not the story.  The simple name and the brief formula captivated America for a while.  The plot and the idea were not too thick.

The Name Game.  Van Morrison is a minstrel who never gets tiresome.  He knows all about names—how they can get inflated and distorted.  He apparently is a private sort of man, not at all taken with the inflation that media and marketing types inflict on us.   Here we learn how he feels, from his song “New Biography”:

Not on my wavelength and it’s such a shame
That they have to play, have to play the fame game
Oh the name game, it’s a cryin’ shame
Please tell me who’s to blame
They keep on playin’
The fame game, oh the name game
It’s such a cryin’ shame, please tell me who’s to blame
Keep on playin’ the fame game.

P.S.  Names of high-technology products and companies are particularly bad.  Frequently they spell out a technology or a process or, worse yet, are just simply meaningless.  What we want is for them to tell us what they are up to.  Computer memory companies might have ‘storage,’ or ‘archive,’ or ‘library’ in the name.  We remember a CFO of an electronic warfare company who cleverly said, “We make fuzzbusters.”  Everybody got it.

P.P.S.  Real-estate developers pick the most unlikely names for their cramped housing parks.  The more romantic the name, the more ghastly the development.  There are a fair number of vales and glens (often meant to invoke Scottish castles and the like):  hills, dale, and trees are usually nowhere to be found in their flat, bulldozered developments.  Dallas (and many other southwestern towns) sport streets such as Yale, Amherst, and Dartmouth—probably meant to tell ambitious strivers who choose to live there that they are going right to the top.

P.P.P.S.  One night on the Staten Island Ferry, a chap happily in his cups, told us he was a ‘G-Man.”  Of course, he was not with the FBI, but worked the garbage trucks in Manhattan.  He reminds us that government agencies always get around to using grand euphemisms as they become less and less effective.  New York City’s Garbage Department is the Environmental Protection Agency, presiding over dirty streets, dirty water, and dirty air.  Once upon a time we had a War Department down in Washington: now it’s the hapless Defense Department.  Academics always like to create institutes with airy abstractions on their nameplates.

P.P.P.P.S.  We are bemused to learn about a Japanese restaurant in London whose central distinction is its high powered bathrooms.  We learned about Saki, because we had occasion to look into some London food writers.  Writing for the Times, Joe Joseph remarks, “Do you want to know the only sad part about the loo in Saki?  It’s that it is not made by the Japanese brand leader, Toto, a company which, when I lived in Japan, used to market its washlet range of sanitaryware with the endearingly memorable slogan, ‘Your bottom will like it after three times.  Don’t let people say behind your back that you have a dirty bottom.’”  There’s nothing here about the sake at Saki.  We imagine its gusher lavatories will much delight songstress Sheryl Crow, who is giving up toilet paper.  We learn in “The Year Without Toilet Paper,” New York Times, March 22, 2007, that she is very much part of a larger movement.  As near as we can tell, Saki’s power flusher came from a European bidet company called Aspen.  After a brush with such a restroom, we are sure that we would take several quaffs of sake.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  The drug industry has a passion for pure gibberish, because it is so peopled by sorcerers and shamans.  A goodly number of the anti-psychotic pills sound like they will create more misery than they alleviate.  Viagra isn’t a bad name for a potion to revive tired soldiers, but whoever came up with Cialis, which sounds pretty lifeless?

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  In the 1960s one ad agency with a funnybone dreamed up a name for a breakfast cereal.  It never saw the light of day, but it was pretty darn descriptive of all cold cereals.  The name was ‘scruts.’

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  On May 23, 2007 we will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of Carl Linnaeus, aka Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, the scientific giant who is a national hero of Sweden.  It is his system of binomial nomenclature laid out most completely in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758) that gave us an organized way to name everything under creation (i.e, plants and animals).  With all its sundry flaws, it made sense of a world teeming with life that had been rather confusing up to his time.  For sure he was the Grand Emperor of Naming who walked in the clouds and who put all later imitators to shame.  Come June, we hope to pay homage to him in Uppsala.  

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