Thursday, May 31, 2012

Famous and forgotten.

She died of tuberculosis at 39, after suffering two failed marriages and a humiliating episode of sudden poverty that reduced her to a beggar for a brief while.

The tragic woman you just read about was named ‘Mercedes Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinek’ by her folks. Doesn’t her name ring a bell? Yes, you guessed it right. The most desirable car on the planet owes its name to her.

The story goes that her dad once told Daimler-Benz that if they named their vehicles after his daughter and if he were made the sole distributor for America and parts of Europe, he’d order 36 cars from them. To put the number in perspective, Germany produced just 900 cars in 1901. So 36 must have been a huge order then. Smelling the prospect of riches, Daimler-Benz acceded to Emil Jellinek’s diktats. And that’s how Mercedes, the little girl with a penurious future, became a luxury car.

Bisleri is another sparkling example of an eponymous brand (named after real people). Originally a product of Felice Bisleri & Co, the renowned mineral water was bought over in 1969, by Parle Products. For those who like a bit of back story, Felice Bisleri was a pharmacist cum liqueur maker cum fervent supporter of Garibaldi with a penchant for concocting aperitifs. The next time you glug down some H2o from your PET bottle, don’t forget to remember this Italian.

The formidable Ayurvedic doctor of Jamnagar - Karuna Shankar Bhatt - suffered a similar fate after he passed away in 1897. A thick mist of anonymity has cloaked his accomplishments ever since and the only thing that’s remembered of him today is his nickname ‘Zandu’ (haanji, that balm)!

One more man about whom we know precious little is Mr. Vadilal of Vadilal’s. Google tells us that Vadilal Gandhi was the great grandfather of the current owners of India’s leading ice cream company. It seems his entrepreneurial spirit drove him to set up a soda fountain in 1907. And that scoop of risk-taking paved the path for the lip smacking firm we know. Hopefully someday all of these people will get their fair slice of the limelight again.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Mystic Name Gene

If Sachin were Sourav Tendulkar, would he have been a great captain? If Farhan Akhtar were Shoaib Akhthar, would he be more alpha male? If Arundhati Roy had been Barkha Roy, would she have been pro-establishment? These are some fascinatingly pointless questions that keep bubbling in my cranium.

The Shakespearean School of Sceptics would snigger at such imputations by arguing that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Me, being an eternal believer in the possibilities that lurk in the unknown, I am of the view that researching the influence of names on how we think, how we look, and how we act, may reveal a whole new science.

For want of a better term, let’s label this still-to-be-born science as ‘Naming Genetics’ or the field that explores the many dimensions of the Name Gene.

To those who are intrigued by ‘Name Gene’, let’s define it for you. I would call it the ‘set of human traits contained in a name’. So every one of us is a walking, talking flesh and blood version of a unique name gene.

The ‘Sachin’ gene, for example, may be associated with a “weak” voice, soft spoken persona and the tendency to pass on the professional baton to the offspring. Music legend Sachin Dev Burman and the Master Blaster come to mind when one thinks of these traits.

From my observations, I can tell that the ‘Lata’ gene is a sure fire guarantor of musicality and tall stature (in terms of physique/reputation). ‘Meera’ ensures an independent streak and the stamina to outlast trials and tribulations. ‘Vijay’ infuses the resident with restlessness, positivity and introvertness. ‘Anand’ bestows nerdiness, cynicism and a love for sport. And ‘Lalita’ somehow breeds rotundity, cheerfulness, religiousness and responsibility.

Although my untested assertions may seem fairly dubious in nature, the best way to evaluate them is by looking around you and analysing if your acquaintances, friends and relatives sharing similar names, have any common behavioural patterns. My gut feel is you will. Because at the end of the day, we are all just vehicles for name genes to navigate the ocean of evolution.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Pettai Wrap Up.

Chennai is easily the most pet friendly city in the Southern hemisphere. The Madrasis cherish their pets so much that they’ve named at least 22 of their 298 pin code zones after pets. From Alwarpet to Washermanpet, they’ve paid homage to herbivores and carnivores of all classes and creeds. They’ve even gone to the extent of creating a rap song themed around their pets!

Which brings us to the most trivial question of the day: where and how did this obsession begin? Well, ‘pet’ as you all know is the anglicised way of saying ‘pettai’ (the Tamil word for ‘market place’).

When the Brits got their act together in Madras, around 1693, they created the first ‘pet’ by rechristening Tondiarpettai as Tondiarpet – which incidentally is a tribute to the Muslim saint Thondiar aka Kunnangudi Masthan Sahib.

Being a cotton-focused enterprise, the East India Company extended the use of this suffix by carving out Chintadripet (derived from ‘Chinna thari pettai’ or small weaver’s town), a township dedicated to weavers, spinners and washers. Vannarapettai or Washermanpet must have been the logical next step. And then the likes of Sowcarpet (sahukar-pettai or money lender market), Jolarpet (the railway base built by Englishman Jolar) and Kosapet (potter’s market) must have sprouted.

Mimicking the ways of the British, many villages and towns across South India, followed this template. Thus was born Somvarpet (Monday Market) in Coorg, Saidapet (a nod to Sayid Khan, the army commander of the Nawab of Arcot) in Chengalpet, and Begumpet (named after the sixth daughter of the Nizam) in Hyderabad.

As you can see, over a period of time ‘pet’ evolved from being a ‘market’ denominator to becoming the generic descriptor for a township. Robertsonpet and Andersonpet near Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka, capture this trend beautifully.

In Chennai, Chromepet (the home of Chrome Leather Company), Chetpet (the area around Namberumal Chetty’s 99 residences) and Teynampet (the land abounding with coconut trees) are some fine examples of the development.

Unfortunately, the ‘Pet’ toponym never took off in North India. ‘Nagar’, ‘Basti’ and ‘Mandi’ were the equivalents preferred instead. One wonders why the Hindiwalahs were so petrified!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Names that didn't make the cut.

Quantum physics tells us that life is a dance of possibilities choreographed by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Till the point of definition, everything is just a haze of waves floating around amorphously in multiple universes following their own logical script. The moment a decision is made, the waves collapse into our three dimensional reality and we get to experience the fruit of the choice we’ve made.

Naming choices follow the same quantum pattern. Yup, every name is the author of its own reality. Had Ian Fleming picked ‘Peregrine Carruthers’ over James Bond, ‘I am Carruthers…Peregrine Caruthers,’ would not have shaken or stirred the box office as the name reeks of a spectacled banker than a likeable spy.

Example-2: When confronted with a gum-drop shaped, candy-coloured translucent desktop computer - the god of design - Steve Jobs, almost opted for ‘MacMan’ as the moniker. Luckily for Apple, they had the sensible Ken Segal who tabled ‘iMac’ for consideration. Thanks to his dogged persistence, we have the iPod, iPhone and iPad today. Else, we’d have been stuck with the very Walkman-like PodMan, PhoneMan and PadMan. With such clunky names, who knows Apple would have turned DudMan!

Starbucks is another great case study to explore the ‘what ifs’ of naming. The founders, it is said, had short listed ‘Pequod’ (the whale ship in the book Moby-Dick) as their first preference. A quip from a co-founder that ‘no one is going to drink a cup of pee-quod!’ kind of harpooned the prospects of poor Pequod. That split second of candidness proved a blessing for the coffee major as the team ended up fishing a more memorable name from Herman Melville’s tome.

The history of brands is littered with many similar instances of sagacious rejection of almost-there names. ‘Blackberry’ would have been called ‘Strawberry’ if not for the intervention of a hard-nosed marketing head, who was seeking, a little alliteration. ‘Jaguar’ could have been ‘SS’, ‘Sunbeam’ or any other animal if not for the wise call of automobile magnate William Lyons. Likewise Google would have been ‘Backrub’ and Twitter would have been ‘Twitch’. Moral of the story: If you choose almost-there, you’ll only be almost-famous.