What’s really in a name?

by Manuel Baer, translated by Colin Rae

Strolling home from work the other day, my attention was caught by an exotic sports car parked at the roadside. The emblem on the rear told me I was looking at a Lotus Exige. I suddenly realised that until that moment, I had never given a thought to where cars get their – sometimes rather strange – names from.

Manuel Baer

Nomen est omen?

Car sharing services are on the rise and a great many drivers now regard their vehicles more as functional than flashy. But for many Germans, the car is still something of a status symbol. So it’s not surprising that automotive advertising is invariably turbocharged with emotion. And as such, it’s crucial that not just the marketing strategy, but also the name of a new car is chosen with considerable care.

On the one hand, the name must convey the qualities unique to that vehicle; for instance, a sleek and stylish coupé has to set horsepower addicts’ hearts racing, an SUV must make the next trip to the shops as exciting as going off-road, and the luxury saloon must assure business people that even after hours on the road they will arrive relaxed and refreshed. On the other, the chosen name has to fit seamlessly to an automaker’s existing model range and corporate identity. And not only is it important to avoid any instances of copyright infringement, it is crucial that the new name not have any negative connotations.

Some automakers can speak from bitter experience on that score. Mitsubishi’s “Pajero” SUV, for example, was named after Leopardus Pajero, a wildcat native to South America. But since in Spanish “pajero” has another – and rather vulgar – meaning, the car was rechristened “Montero” for sale in Spanish-speaking countries.

Mitsubishi’s rival Toyota has similar issues with its MR2. Taken from Mid-engined Rearwheel-Drive Two-seater, in French this name sounds remarkably similar to “merdeux” or “merde” – “brat” or “shit”. So in France, this little sports car is known simply as MR.

Two disparate worlds

 Considering the great effort the automotive industry goes to when coming up with new names, I’ve always found it strange that motorbike manufacturers don’t seem nearly as invested. As a motorbike enthusiast myself, I would have expected even more emotion since two-wheeler riders experience driving much more directly than motorists do. In a car, drivers are shielded from the rigours of the road by the insulating power of the passenger cell and the firewall that separates them from the engine. In contrast, motorcyclists feel not only the wind in their faces, but also every bump in the road. And because riders sit directly above the engine, they hear and feel how it responds to even the slightest twist of the throttle.

I find it even stranger that many motorbikes bear cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, such as ZX-6R, CBR 900 RR or S 1000 RR, which are not exactly destined to inspire potential buyers. The Kawasaki ZX-6R Ninja and the Honda CBR 900 RR Fireblade, for instance, do have proper (rather martial) monikers, but this is more of an exception rather than the rule – especially for Japanese-made bikes. Italian manufacturers tend to be a good deal more style-conscious with such lyrical names as Aprilia Dorsoduro or Ducati Panigale.

Photo credit: Sticker Mule

Colloquial creativity

What’s interesting is that some motorbikes have, on account of certain characteristics, received less flattering though still affectionate nicknames.

Take some of BMW’s older models that transferred power from the transmission to the rear wheel using a cardan shaft drive. Chosen because it was easier to maintain than the otherwise standard chain, this design feature meant that the bike’s rear would noticeably rise and fall with every burst of acceleration or deceleration. In German at least, this earned the nickname “Gummikuh” or “rubber cow” since cows tend to stand up rear first.

Then there’s the Honda CX500. Its two-cylinder engine might be packed with sophisticated technology, but the overall look left many motorcycle fans cold. The bike’s design made the engine look somehow misshapen, an impression reinforced by the absence of cooling fins. These were not required because the CX500’s engine is cooled with water instead of air. In 1978, Franz Josef Schermer wrote in that year’s third issue of MOTORRAD magazine: “What this bike lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in performance.” Comic book artist Rötger Feldmann was less diplomatic. In an issue of his “Werner” stories, Feldmann pokes fun at this bike page after page: Farmer Horst is complaining about his broken slurry pump when our hero, Werner, drops by unexpectedly and suggests waiting for a CX500 to drive by. Werner flags one down and before the owner knows what is happening, Werner has attached the hose of the broken pump to the bike, pronouncing that the CX500 is the best slurry pump in the world. Since then, this Honda has in the German-speaking world been known as the “Güllepumpe”. But this hasn’t stopped the CX500 from becoming a favourite among collectors, who feel it is one of the classic bikes of the 1970s and 80s.

It’s of course impossible to know in advance what unflattering nicknames someone might think up. Nevertheless, it’s always worth having language experts check to see whether a name has an unhelpful meaning or connotation in another language. One in-the-know manufacturer is Rolls-Royce, which when preparing to launch a new model changed the name from Silver Mist to Silver Shadow – in German, “Mist” means manure.

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