Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Brand Theory

Real story. A famed venture capital fund once beseeched us to come up with a meaningless name for an apparel start-up. We tried reasoning with them and presented them some crispy, creative names with a whiff of an idea. In their infinite wisdom, they declined them all and went on to buy a 4-letter domain name that rhymes with Bowie. Years later, when someone asked them to explain their name, they put out a story that it’s the Russian word for ‘call me’!

Come to think of it, I have no beef with nonsensical sounding names. There are plenty of them around. The more successful ones have an iota of logic embedded somewhere. When George Eastman devised ‘Kodak’ in 1888, he was clear that he wanted a name that starts and ends with K, with no scope for mispronunciation or misspelling. After experimenting with many combinations, he and his mom hit upon the name that sold a million cameras.

The triumph of Kodak gave rise to a deluge of coinages. Businessmen started exploring newer possibilities in the genre of minted names. In 1903, Caleb Bradham developed a drink for upset stomachs. He named it ‘Pepsi-Cola’ as it was a remedy for dyspepsia. The London Rubber Company fused ‘Durable, Reliable & Excellence’ to birth ‘Durex’ condoms in 1929. The Van Melle brothers hit upon ‘Mentos’ in 1933 probably inspired by the peppermint flavour of their candy. Chester Carlson created ‘Xerox’ in 1949 from the process of ‘dry writing’ or ‘Xerography’. Sam Walton took a piece of his surname and launched ‘Wal-Mart’ in 1962. Around 1968, Intel was carved out of ‘Integrated Electronics’ as it sounded a lot cooler than NM Electronics.

The mad rush for coined names actually began in the late nineties with the explosion of dot coms. The pressure to create something unique led to the ‘altered spellings’ movement and that’s how we got Google, Flickr, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg, Segway, Ffffound, Myntra, Zomato and Qwikr. For those who love their history, La-Z-Boy recliners began this fad way back in 1927!

Another trick used by start-ups is the ‘odd words’ jugalbandi. Pepperfry, PepperTap, Urban Clap, Urban Ladder, Freshdesk and LimeRoad are popular examples. But I am a sucker for puns. So the one coined name that caught my eye in recent times is Nearbuy. When it’s as catchy as that, you don’t need to settle for gibberish like Grofers!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seoul Curry

We’re so ignorant about South Korea that some of us may even assume Charles Correa to be a Korean architect. No, I kid you not! Beyond the usual stereotypes of dog meat and Gangnam Style we know next to nothing about them.

Did you know that they are the world’s most innovative economy? More innovative than Germany, Japan or the United States! Do you know that everyone has a broadband connection there with internet speeds faster than the fastest?

I bet you’re not even aware that the South Korean language has at least 500 words in common with Tamil. Which includes shockingly same nouns, pronouns, verbs and interjections like appa (father), amma (mother), na (me), ni (you), naal (day), va (come), anbu (love) and acho (ouch). They even have a 60-year calendar like us and celebrate their Sashtiapdapoorthi (60th birthday)!

Cultural similarities aside, there’s a lot that’s unique about the South Koreans. New born babies turn one, the day they are born, unlike other societies where the age clock starts ticking only after 12 months.

Even their names are very different from the Chinese and the Japanese. They usually follow a 3-syllable nomenclature with the first being the surname and the other two being the given name.

Kim is the most popular surname. A recent study concluded that there are close to 10 million Kims in Korea alone. Park and Lee took the second and third spots in the surname sweepstakes. That could be because Kim and Park were names of royalty that still command respect in the land of the morning calm. The current president Park Geun-Hye’s name literally means ‘gentle like a hibiscus’. An odd rule that the country still follows is, people with same surnames cannot marry each other. Some say it’s necessary to retain the purity of the gene pool.

The most famous South Korean names we know are obviously brand names. Samsung literally translates to ‘three stars’. Hyundai works out to ‘modernity’. Daewoo meaning ‘Great Woo’ is an ode to the chairman Kim Woo-Jung. Kia in Kia Motors is a portmanteau standing for ‘rising out of Asia’. Lotte has an interesting etymology. Its founder Shin Kyuk-Ho was into Goethe. He liked the character ‘Charlotte’ in his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and as a tribute, he called his company ‘Lotte’. There’s a lot more to learn about Korea. We’ll reserve it for some other day. Till then let me take leave with an anneyong (goodbye)!

1. Clippinger's pioneering research paper on "Korean and Dravidian: Lexical Evidence for an Old Theory".
2. Wikipedia: 'Dravido-Korean Languages' page.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Say It Again

In 1998, a very knowledgeable bloke posted a simple query in the ever-interesting Tamil Film Music Page ( He asked, “Why does ARR always begin songs with a word repeated twice?” That got everyone thinking. Frenetic lists were made. Before someone could rattle off ‘Chaiya Chaiya’, ‘Mustafa Mustafa’, ‘Ennavale Ennavale’, ‘Humma Humma’, ‘Rukumani Rukumani’, ‘Urvasi Urvasi’ and ‘Columbus Columbus’, another geek discovered that Ilayaraja was equally guilty of replicative words. ‘Janani Janani’, ‘Mayilae Mayilae’, ‘Manidha Manidha’, and ‘Sendhoorapoovae Sendhoorapoovae’ were stacked up as a riposte by a Rehman fan.

As a wise observer noted, neither could be blamed as the tradition of using Irattai Kilavi (twin words) has been around since the time of the Tolkappiyam (the first known work in Tamil literature). And if you care to look around, you’ll notice it everywhere, even today. Tamilians use ‘pala pala’ to indicate ‘glow’, ‘moru moru’ to emphasize crispness, ‘modhu modhu’ to cue roly-poly-ness, ‘palaar palaar’ to imply getting whacked, ‘vala vala’ for yakking, and ‘kisu kisu’ for gossiping.

Forget Tamil, ‘Twin Words’ is a phenomenon right across India. One can find hundreds of examples in Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Hindi. It’s so prevalent that two IIT Kanpur scholars RMK Sinha and Anil Thakur have actually put out a research paper on the topic.

The gist of their findings is: If the pair is a noun form like ‘ghar ghar’ or ‘bachcha bachcha’, the intention is to quantify things – although in case of ‘chor chor’ or ‘bachao bachao’, the idea is to get more attention; Numeral replications like ‘ek ek’, ‘aadmi aadmi’ is done to create a group feel; Adverb and adjective replications such as ‘dheere dheere’, ‘choti choti’, ’bade bade’ and ’naya naya,’ are meant for intensifying the meaning; Onomatopoeic repetitions like ‘ghanan ghanan’ (downpour), ‘kaanv kaanv’ (cawing), ‘sar sar’ (blowing), ‘jhar jhar’ (flowing) and ‘dhak dhak’ (heartbeat), are used for capturing natural sounds; while pronoun repetitions like ‘jahan jahan’, ‘jab jab’ and ‘jis jis’ are used for amplification of the focus.

Bollywood has been a fast learner of these tricks. Which is why, many blockbuster hits featured twin words in their titles. One can recall ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Ha’, ‘Kabhie Kabhie’, ‘Khel Khel Mein’, ‘Andaaz Apna Apna’, ‘Bol Radha Bol’ and ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag’. My gut feel is Twenty20 sounds a lot sexier than test cricket because of the tautology. Brands like Tata, Pass Pass, Toto, M&Ms and 50/50 are beneficiaries of the same principle. So are the many catchy cab numbers (3000 3000 and 6000 6000) deployed in Chennai. In conclusion, all one say is that if one wishes to capture mindshare, it helps to say things over and over!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Autobiographies Don't Sell

True lies. That’s what most autobiographies are about. They are nothing but verbose vehicles for revealing the reality about others and presenting your airbrushed, manicured self to an imagined world. Which is probably why no one cares to read them.

Fact: The last memoir to create a stir was Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. And it flew off the shelves as everybody wanted a sneak peek into his devilish mind. When Churchill wrote his ‘My Early Life’ it didn’t have as many takers.

This apparent paradox has led many to spice up their stories. Why else do you think celebs throw in a hush-hush affair, or reveal their sexual orientation or narrate an untold incident of child abuse? It’s not because they wish to record a confession. The unvarnished reason is money, honey! Everyone wants to be a bestseller.

But what many forget is that the journey to delivering a successful book, starts with a pithy title. A title that can sum up your life in less than 6 words. If you’re going to be an LK Advani, then you’ll end up with a bland one like ‘My Country, My Life’. Surely one can do better. I’d have gone for a bolder title like ‘Grapes of Rath’ or ‘My Chariots of Fire’.

History is replete with some lovely memoir titles. Roger Moore, the super suave actor who played 007, called his tome ‘My Word is My Bond’. Spike Lee, the auteur renowned for exploring racism, chose ‘Tall, Dark & Gruesome’. Arnold Schwarzenegger picked ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’. Star Trek stud Leonard Nimoy first said ‘I am Not Spock’ to underline his versatility. But later in life when everyone forgot about him, he came back with another volume: ‘I am Spock’.

Singer, actress, comedian Bette Midler dabbled in word play with ‘View from A Broad’. If you didn’t get her ingenuity, just say it loud, and you’ll figure that it sounds like ‘View from Abroad’. Another comic Vic Reeves (born Jim Moir) came up with the splendid ‘Me Moir’. Hard rocker Gene Simmons managed to cleverly embed his band name in the title. He opted for ‘KISS & Makeup’. Among the business heads, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson remained his true blue controversial self by labelling his work ‘Losing My Virginity’. Back home, the only half-decent name in recent times is ‘A Shot at History’ from Olympian Abhinav Bindra. I wonder when our stars will breathe some life into their life story!