When Apple held its latest product launch in San Francisco earlier this month, the announcement of the iPhone 5 hogged most of the media spotlight. But two other products got less-heralded updates: the iPod Touch and its diminutive sibling, the iPod Nano. And where the new iPods might not have gotten a flashy rollout, Apple compensated by mustering some dubious words on their behalf. The tagline for the new iPod Touch is “Engineered for Maximum Funness.” The iPod Nano, meanwhile, was introduced as “Completely Renanoed.”
Funness? Renanoed? It’s as if Apple’s marketers are working overtime to annoy the loathers of linguistic novelty. But they’re hardly alone. Why do so many advertising campaigns try to push our lexical buttons—and just what do they expect us to do with these artificial words?
For the iPod Touch, “Engineered for Maximum Fun” would have made the same point, but wouldn’t have been as eye-catching. Funness sounds like a conscious callback to an earlier iPod slogan: In 2008, Steve Jobs unveiled the second-generation iPod Touch as “the funnest iPod ever.”
Jobs’s announcement raised the hackles of traditionalists who resist the creeping shift of fun from noun to adjective. Back when fun emerged as a noun in the late 17th century, it wasn’t considered very proper: Samuel Johnson in 1755 identified it as “a low cant word” of the criminal underworld. Even if fun as a noun became acceptable, the gradual move to adjective status has been a harder sell. And even if you’re fine with “a fun party,” adding the comparative ending -er or the superlative ending -est can sound peculiar or overly slangy. (After the funnest
iPod, T-Mobile tried to get in on the act with an ad claiming that their new Android smartphone was, in fact, funnerer.)
Funness is even more in-your-face, since it suggests that plain old fun won’t do the trick anymore. “It seems to stick its tongue out at people who object to using fun as an adjective,” verbal branding consultant Christopher Johnson told me. “Funness implies that fun has so thoroughly morphed into an adjective that you have to put -ness on it to turn it back into a noun.”
If Apple’s sloganeers were hoping to stir up some publicity with funness, they appear to have failed (well, except for this column). But the “completely renanoed” catchphrase, as it turns out, really got people’s goat. The widely read Gizmodo blog deemed it “officially the dumbest slogan Apple has ever come up with,” driving the point home with the word “dumb” repeated 25 consecutive times at the end of the post. (As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so even outraged reactions such as this count as “buzz” from a marketer’s perspective.)
Chris Matyszczyk of CNET’s Technically Incorrect blog figures Apple reached for renanoed because the company has run out of “real” words. “Apple has for so long gushed about novelty, magic, revolution, excitement, greatness, beauty, and never-before-ism that the pages of the writers’ thesauruses have become useful only for wrapping fish and chips,” Matyszczyk wrote.
But San Francisco-based naming consultant Nancy Friedman observes that Apple is simply doing what advertisers have tried to do since time immemorial: “grab your attention and make you think.” “It’s part nostalgia (looking back) and part resourcefulness (recycling, reinventing).” Friedman told me. “And of course turning ‘Nano’ into a verb suggests dynamism—and makes trademark lawyers apoplectic.”
Though we’re used to brand names being fanciful coinages—think Kodak, Exxon, or Google—making up words for ad slogans has drawn more criticism over the years. Writing in The New Yorker in 1958, S.J. Perelman provided this bit of satirical ad copy: “Victor Hugo—the Soup That Babies Your Palate.
Appeteasing—Goodylicious.” Perelman was playing on Madison Avenue’s habit of concocting portmanteau words like appeteasing (appetizing + teasing) and goodylicious (goody + delicious).
Coining words for the sake of an advertising campaign can sometimes get a little out of hand. Snickers, in 2009, went overboard with the creation of “Snacklish,” a lexicon of such neologisms as hungerectomy, satisfectellent, and nougatocity. None of these stunt words ever became popular, needless to say, but that was hardly the point: It was wordplay for wordplay’s sake, trying to make people stop and puzzle over the odd coinages that they encountered in ads.
Of course, this mischievous approach to language remains ripe for parody. In his book “Microstyle,” Johnson points out that after Perelman but well before Snacklish, The Onion satirized the snack-food industry’s tendency to neologize in a 2005 headline, “Fritolaysia Cuts Off Chiplomatic Relations with Snakistan.” The Onion returned to that well just last week, with an article on how “Doritologists working in the Frito-Layboratory reportedly unleashed an evil of cheddarclysmic proportions Monday when they brought an appalling munchstrosity to life.”
Whether it’s snack-food munchstrosities or funnified iPods, all of this belabored wordplay can get downright tiring. And to jaded consumers, too much linguistic innovation may appear to be papering over a deficiency in actual product innovation. These days, iPods aren’t as revolutionary as they once were, as new models show only incremental improvements.
Apple should beware: If its advertising continues down this wordalicious path, its products may end up seeming as overhyped as the latest snacksperiment from the Doritologists.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at