Category Archives: Branding

Don’t get your knickers in a knot!

Since I’ll be spending my vacation in Britain this summer, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the language we have in common – or do we?

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British English is different from Canadian English which is different from American English, although I imagine that 90 per cent of the words we use are understandable to each other. A rose is a rose is a rose after all.

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Nonetheless, there are words that are used in both Britain and North America, but have different meanings depending on the continent. It’s these words that we travellers must beware, lest we receive puzzled looks, outright stares or requests for translation. In the interest of self-preservation, I’ve learned a few of them, but there are endless traps for unwary visitors:

  • Flat. We North Americans think of this word as an adjective that describes a piece of paper (not wrinkled) or the calm state of a body of water (Lake Ontario is flat today; not a hint of wind or waves). In Britain, it’s a noun synonymous with an apartment. (Suzy finally moved out of the house and is sharing a flat with two colleagues.)
  • Lift. In Canada, this is a verb used when one plans to pick something up from the ground or a shelf (Be careful when you lift that glass bowl – it’s heavier than it looks!). Across the pond, however, it refers to an elevator (Hold the door to the lift, please. I’m coming!)
  • Boot. When we hear this word, the thoughts of those of us in northern climes turn to the foot coverings we wear throughout the long winter (The snow comes nearly to the top of my boot.). In England’s more salubrious climate, it refers to the trunk of a car. (Open the boot so I can fetch my other pair of shoes.)
  • Jumper. In Toronto, this term is ghoulishly used for someone who commits suicide by throwing themselves in the path of an oncoming train, but it’s much more innocuous abroad; it simply refers to a sweater. (Did your grandmother knit you another ugly jumper for the holidays?)

So, pitfalls lurk everywhere – around any corner, there could be disaster. For hapless, helpless tourists who want to prepare, there is probably help online, but I think I’ll wait to be surprised – and, undoubtedly, embarrassed.

P.S. Feel free to send me your own examples – and how you learned to appreciate the other meaning. Vive la difference!

 

Photo credits: creativecommons.com

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The Sound of Branding

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a pair of University of Toronto researchers about their work in sound symbolism, the intersection of linguistics and cognitive science that demonstrates the perceived link between sounds and meaning.

New research by research fellow Cris Rabaglia and Professor Sam Maglio shows that people associate words with front-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue relatively far forward in the mouth, such as the ee in feet – with nearness. Conversely, back-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue far back in the mouth, such as oo in food –are associated with distance. The research is published online in the journal Cognition.

It’s not only English where sound symbolism is evident; researchers have shown it to be valid for languages as diverse as Japanese and Swedish, and it is BoubaKikiEffectapplicable for more concrete characteristics, too, such as an object’s shape. This was demonstrated as early as 1929 in an experiment by a scientist named Wolfgang Kohler and repeated in a 2001 experiment with English-speaking students in the United States and Tamil speakers in India. They were asked to look at a pointy object and a rounded object and determine which was called a bouba and which a kiki. At least 95 per cent of those in each group chose kiki as the pointy object and bouba as the rounded, organic shape.

Learning about sound symbolism is quirky and fun, but why should we bother otherwise? For anyone who works with branding, it’s important because these linguistic associations affect people’s impressions and behaviours.  Doing some research before naming a product is worth the time it takes.

“Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands,” Rabaglia told the University of Toronto Mississauga news. “If you name something in a way that isn’t intuitive, it could decrease the likelihood that people will want to interact with that product.”

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