Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Sweetest Revenge

Hitchcock once said: “Revenge is sweet and not fattening.” On deeper analysis, his quip indeed feels deep. Think about it. When life serves you lemons, the only artificial sweetener at your disposal is the aspartame of vendetta. When sprinkled in the right portions, it lightens up the bitterness, melts away the rancour and replaces the taste of acerbity with the saccharine glee of tit-for-tat.

For those who want their retribution to linger a little longer, there’s always ‘revenge naming’. It’s the practice of labelling a living thing or object after a name you despise, so that it acts as a permanent advertisement for whatever you hate.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was the pioneer of the concept. When academician Johann Siegesbeck was busy denouncing his ideas, Linnaeus got even by naming a foul-smelling yucky weed as ‘Siegesbeckia Orientalis’.  

Carl was not the only one to take veiled jibes at opponents. Out of disdain for Anne Chisholm - the critic who trashed her novel - Jilly Cooper immortalised a goat in her next novel by calling it ‘Chisholm’. Understandably Anne wasn’t amused. They say it got her goat!

Revenge names, sometimes, present a handy valve for jilted wives to ventilate their anger. When Victoria Bage discovered that her husband had a mistress, she decided to embarrass him once for all by launching ‘Sarah Coggles’, a fashion store in Yorkshire. Every time someone asked her about the identity of ‘Sarah Coggles’, she used to regale her audience with salacious tales of her man’s fling with Miss Coggles!

In Michael Jackson’s case, it was just the reverse. He punished Diana Ross, the crooner who spurned him for Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess, by releasing the famed single ‘Dirty Diana’.

Using names as weapons to take pot shots at hate figures took an altogether political turn recently, when a French gaming designer created ‘Kill Mittal’. Apparently, his aim was to demonise Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire responsible for shutting down steel plants in France. The game got such bad press for Arcelor Mittal that the steelmaker is now said to be steeling itself against more attacks. What this goes to show is: there is power in naming and shaming. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

When Mars Gains Currency.

If everything goes according to plan, four lucky souls from Earth will establish the first-ever human settlement on Mars by April 2023.

While landing on the red planet will be the easier part, staying put will be an altogether trickier proposition. Because out there: the average temperature is minus 60 degrees Celsius, the air pressure is the equivalent of living in a mountain five times the height of Mt. Everest, the oxygen content in the atmosphere is less than 1%, the surface gravity is 38% of what we face, and worst of all, there are no known water bodies. So the chance of survival of the four astronauts is almost the same as that of four tiny ants in Antarctica!

Assuming they rough it out and somehow procreate, in a few hundred years, we’d have created a whole new civilisation. From our wealth of earthly experience, we know that civilisations cannot be sustained on love and fresh air alone. Money is the vital ingredient for viability. And to generate money you need a currency first.

Considering Mars doesn’t have its own dollar, euro or yen, we’ll have to invent a new medium of exchange that’ll be acceptable to all. Suggestions have already started pouring in on possible options. The Mars Candy Bar is the universal favourite as it appeals to the inner child in us. Marzipan (almond confectionery), comes a close second. Between the two, it’s highly likely for people to prefer the former as 100,000 Mars Bars sounds far more sumptuous than 100,000 Marzipans.

If the Martians were to vote for a paper currency, then we’ll be forced to designate it with a name that captures the spirit of Mars. Since not much spadework has been done in this domain, let’s attempt to kick start the conversation by floating a few candidates.

Since Mars is the fourth planet, ‘Quads’ (Latin for four) offers an interesting choice. ‘Reddies’ is another likeable option as it captures the ruddiness of the terrain. ‘Ferrix’ (a variation of Ferric) could be a possibility as the planet is rich in iron ore. ‘Savoys’ (from Sevvai - Tamil for Mars) is an exotic take. Whatever the final pick, it better be out of the world!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Same Same Name

Would you notice a man wearing a white shirt? I can hear your resounding NO, sitting in Kilpauk. Now would you notice the same man if he wore a white shirt, white pants, white cap, white shoes, white gloves, white watch and white goggles? You would spot him from a mile, right? That’s the power of repetition. It can make sameness, stand apart.

Tautonyms (or ditto names, as I call them) use the same principle to incredible effect by repeating syllables twice. ‘Tata’ is perhaps, the best example. It’s a behemoth of a conglomerate and yet, the name is approachable, full of warmth and evokes instant affection. A teensy bit of the credit should go to the duplicative sound arrangement of the name.

Child-friendliness is one more reason for the adorability. Names like ZooZoo (the Vodafone creature with balloon body and egg head) and Tintin (the amiable Belgian comic character) roll off the tongue, very easily for kids, as they are very similar in structure to baby words like ‘Papa’, ‘Mama’, ‘Nana’, ‘Didi’, ‘Thatha’, ‘Dada’, ‘Kaka’, ‘Chacha’ and ‘Dhudhu’.

The juvenile innocence of Tun Tun brings a smile to your face even before you see the fat lady emoting. The nickname Chi Chi makes Govinda more endearing than he could ever imagine. Lady Gaga blasts away the icy visage of Stefani Joane Angeline Germanotta. Tuktuk morphs the rickety motor vehicle into a plump cutesy boy. Bulbul creates a lively little girl aura around the nightingale. Twenty-Twenty feels far lighter and unboring compared to the uptight Test Match.

The winsome nature of repetition is further attested by the formidable success of chartbusters such as ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’, ‘Dhak Dhak’, ‘Chaiya Chaiya’, ‘Hamma Hamma’, ‘Kandukondein Kandukondein‘, ‘Yathey Yathey’, and ‘Waka Waka’.

I suspect that our ancestors might have known about the power of reduplication much earlier. May be that’s why they injected the chants ‘Shiva Shiva’, ‘Govinda Govinda’ and ‘Ram Ram’ into the pedestrian parlance.

Zsa Zsa Gabor and Moon Moon Sen are among the celebrities who’ve mikled this strategy. Bisou Bisou and Miu Miu are some fashionable brands that have followed suit. So I guess it helps to be of the same mould.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

On lemons and melons.

Fruit names have always fascinated me. Who’s that Kamala in Kamala Orange? What does the ‘coco’ in coconut mean? Why is, the pomegranate, not called the apple? How come the Tamil Sapota sounds like the Spanish Zapote? When did the Chinese Gooseberry become the Kiwifruit? Which came first ‘maang kaai’ or ‘mango’? Where on earth did Tangerine come from? These are some of the questions that have tormented me ever since I bit my first apple. When I tried seeking the answers, I realised we don’t know jack about the jackfruit.

Yup, the Jackfruit is not named after Captain Jack Sparrow from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. It’s derived from the Portugese ‘jaca’ which in turn is a lift from the Malayalam term ‘chakka pazham’.

If that surprised you, listen to this Malay fable. Once upon a time, an elephant strolled into an orchard. Seeing the succulent fruits it went delirious. It ate and ate, till its belly burst. Years later, when a passerby examined its fossil, he discovered that the culprit was the fruit. He called it Naaga Ranga which translates to ‘fatal indigestion of elephants’ in Sanskrit. Over time it seems Naaga Ranga became Naranga, Oranja and finally Orange! Take the anecdote with a pint of salt. The fact remains that Orange owes its origins to Naranga.

And what about Kamala Orange? Kamala in Sanskrit just means ‘pale red’ or ‘yellowish red’. So Kamala is only a colour allusion.

The Coconut has a more interesting story. When some Spanish explorers stumbled upon the nut, the three eyes of the coconut reminded them of a ‘monkey face’ or coco. Hence the name.

Avocado (testicle tree), Pomegranate (apple from Granada), Chikku (chicozapote) and Guava (guaya) have similar Hispanic roots. While Mango comes from the Portugese Manga which in turn is an offspring of ‘Maang Kai’ from Tamil.

Now to the Kiwifruit conundrum. Although ‘Chinese Gooseberry’ was the original name, some farmers in New Zealand were craving for a moniker reflecting their land. Exporter Jack Turner suggested ‘Kiwifruit’ as the fruit’s hairy exterior reminded him of the hairy bird!
Talking of geography, Tangerine is from Tangiers, Morocco, and Peach from Persia. Hope that was fruity loops to your ears.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What the Gandhi Dynasty owes India.

Naming rights is a nascent industry in India. BCCI, the famed not-for-profit society was the earliest to milk the potential to a Yes Bank Maximum by hawking every teensy thing associated with IPL. As Amrit Mathur points out here, the BCCI rakes in annual franchisee fee payments ranging from ₹ 198 crores from Sahara Pune Warriors to ₹ 36 crores from Rajasthan Royals. Considering the title rights (2013 to 2017) was sold to Pepsi for ₹ 396.8 crores, you can clearly imagine the cash cow that has been created by a mere transfer of verbal branding rights. Although sports is the lead arena for naming rights, internationally several cash-strapped universities, governments and hospitals have raised truckloads of money by deploying this strategy. To give you a quick idea:

 University of Missouri-Kansas City (UKMC) retails professorship naming rights for ₹ 4 crores, endowed chair for ₹ 8 crores, restroom branding for ₹ 13 lakhs and bigger ticket items for amounts ranging in the realm of ₹ 30 crores and above.

 The Pattison Avenue Terminus was renamed as AT&T Station by the city of Philadelphia for a price of ₹ 21 crores. In Camp Hill, Pensylvania, government officials were offering to name two gyms for ₹ 1.3 crores each, the town library for ₹ 80 lakhs and high school counseling offices for ₹ 8 lakhs!

 Hasbro Children's Hospital at Rhode Island Hospital, Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, and Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles are some hospitals that have benefited. It seems, Hasbro paid ₹ 13 crores way back in 1994 to clinch the deal.

Given this background, now let's examine what our Government of India has been doing, year on year. Naming rights to all leading institutions in all leading cities, has been gifted away to the Gandhi Family for almost nothing. Here's a very conservative estimate of the loss incurred by the tax payer:

  •  6 Airports and ports. Let's apply a basic fee of Rs. 50 crores a year. That's 300 crores gone. 
  •  98 Universities and educational institutions. Let's apply a peanut fee of 50 lakhs per institution per year. That's 49 crores gone down the drain. 
  •  39 Hospitals. Applying a pessimistic rate of 1 crore per hospital. That's 39 crores gifted away. 
  •  74 Roads, Buildings and Places. If the naming rights were to be auctioned, it will yield at least 50 lakhs per entity per year. That's again 39 crores. 
  •  15 National Parks and Sanctuaries. Since every corporate covets the green tag, the naming rights may yield at least 10 crore per park per year. That's 150 crores. 
  • 1 Airport and 1 port. @ 50 crores/year, the damage is 100 crores. 
  •  11 Universities and educational institutions. @ 50 lakhs/year, the loss is 5.5 crores. 
  •  5 Museums and Parks. @ 10 crore/year, the government loses 50 crores. 
  •  5 Convention halls and sports arenas. @ 10 crores / year, GOI gave up 50 crores of revenue. 
 I am not going to count the awards and other schemes named after Indira and Rajiv.

The net opportunity loss per year for the government of India is at least 775 crores. That's just for the naming rights. Think of what all can be done with 775 crores. For starters we could feed at least 7 lakh people below poverty line (Montek's definition of 28 rupees per day) for a whole year!