A fun way to spend a rainy hour in Seattle is to browse in Uwajimaya, a huge Asian supermarket in the International District (which locals call “the ID”). There you can see products that, from a mainland American point of view (at least this mainland American point of view), are pretty exotic. Things like durian-flavored pudding cups, little dried sesame-crusted baby crabs sold in plastic bags like potato chips, and gadgets designed specifically for making Spam sushi (it’s Hawaiian Food Week).

And if you’re interested in names, you can enjoy some English-based Asian brand names that are equally exotic. They’re mostly, but not exclusively, for Japanese products. The way English is used in these names is often shocking and amusing, so much so that there are websites, such as Engrish.com, devoted to showcasing Asian product names for laughs. Some of the names, like Pocari Sweat (for an “Ion Supply Drink”), you’ve probably come across before–they’ve been mentioned often enough in the media to have achieved a degree of notoriety. (Uwajimaya did indeed have big displays of Pocari Sweat right up near the cash registers.) There are other Asian-English names, though, that don’t have quite the same shock value, but that present English from a subtly different perspective. For a namer, these can be inspiring as well as funny.

Some of the names, like Watering KissMint chewing gum, are kind of poetic. No native speaker of American English would come up with this name. While KissMint alone is pretty normal, that present participle Watering makes the name special–it’s not an idiomatic use of the word water, and it suggests really sloppy kisses. The result is very evocative, though, and the unusual language is partly responsible. The Name Inspector gets the sense that watering is being used as a near-synonym for refreshing, but it evokes a more specific image of plants being watered, giving us a metaphorical way to see and feel our refreshment.

The gum with the charmingly literal name No Time apparently brushes your teeth while you chew it. Then there’s Walky Walky candy. Not shocking, not mind-blowing–just a little askew. It sounds  a bit like walkie talkie, or an ironic baby-talk command: “Come one now, everyone, walky-walky!”. And there’s a cold coffee drink called Let’s Be. You could imagine an American product going for a kind of Zen effect with a name like Just Be, but Let’s Be sounds a bit bizarre. Maybe the inclusive invitation of Let’s Be sounds more polite than the straightforward imperative form that’s ubiquitous in American branding and advertising. Come to think of it, the brand name of the little snack crabs mentioned above was Let’s Party! (Because nothing says “party” like a bag of little dried crabs!).

Other unusual beverage names included Sac Sac, a fruit juice drink, and amino supli, an apparent Pocari Sweat competitor.

In the Uwajimaya food court there’s a cream puff vendor called Beard Papa’s. Their logo includes a cartoon man-face with a fluffy white beard that looks liked whipped cream. Both the language of the name and the concept behind it are surprising. First, it’s just strange to modify papa with beard like that. Bearded papa would be the idiomatic way to say it. But more to the point, The Name Inspector is hard-pressed to think of a Western food product that’s touted, however subtly, for its resemblance to human hair. There’s angel hair pasta, of course, but that’s from angels, which, if they actually existed, would no doubt be quite delicious.

It’s hard not to have at least one laugh about an inappropriate name, and The Name Inspector got his from Chippy corn chips, which manages to be both unimaginative and way off the mark.

Browsing at Uwajimaya is like being a tourist without leaving the city center. Being in a foreign setting tends to heighten your sensitivity to all stimuli–even the familiar ones that are suddenly thrown into relief by an unfamiliar background. And so it was with The Name Inspector at Uwajimaya. One of the exotic Asian names he wrote down was Sport Beans candy. But then he looked more closely and realized this was a thoroughly American product, made by Ronald Reagan’s favorite jelly bean company Jelly Belly, headquartered in California, USA. Thank you, Uwajimaya, for helping The Name Inspector see the strangeness of American brand names through new eyes.

9 Responses to “Name watching at Uwajimaya”

  1. on 14 Aug 2009 at 11:24 am Chris Ryland

    Beard Papa’s is, I think, Phillipino in origin. There’s one at the foot of the Marriott San Francisco next to Moscone Center. The best cream puffs etc. you will ever taste in your life.

  2. on 14 Aug 2009 at 11:24 am Chris Ryland

    Oops, Filipino, of course. ;-)

  3. on 14 Aug 2009 at 12:04 pm The Name Inspector

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the tips. Yeah, it looked pretty good to me. I’ll have to give it a try.

  4. on 14 Aug 2009 at 4:35 pm Jen Burton

    RE: Beard Papa (from Japan btw): “La barbe à papa” (lit. “Papa’s beard”) means “cotton candy” in French. I always assumed the cream puff name was a reference to that (fluffy, light, sweet), which still doesn’t explain how anyone thought hair would be an appetizing association (for cotton candy or cream puffs).

    It appears that it’s even more bizarre and literal than that. According to the video on their website, the character Beard Papa came up with his confection “as he stroked his fluffy, white beard,” and vowed to make a delightful treat “just as fluffy and lovable as my beard.”

    Judging by the lines in their SF outlets, the name hasn’t hurt their business.

  5. on 14 Aug 2009 at 7:11 pm The Name Inspector

    Thanks for stopping by, Jen, and for that extra research. The plot, like the beard, thickens.

  6. on 26 Aug 2009 at 7:50 pm Danny Bloom

    Great post. I have been living in Asia, Japan and Taiwan, since 1991. I am so used to all these interesting uses of English and uber-English and proto-English and post-English and Chinglish and Japlish, that I hardly even notice anymore. One world, one people, one language. Jibberish!

  7. on 26 Aug 2009 at 8:30 pm Danny Bloom

    By the way, you know the guy in SF who named the Kindle the Kindle. Now many users of the Kindle reading device are using the word as a verbn as in “I’m kindling now on my Kindle” or “I’m kindling a very good book now, call you back later” [text message to a friend]…. interesting. Just as googling entered our vocab as a verb, after a few false starts, now kindling is poised to make its entrance too. Maybe? Maybe not. Time will tell. But google “kindling as a verb for Kindle” and you will see.

    By the way, speaking of naming: i am on a campaign to create a new word for “reading on a screen”, as opposed to reading on paper surfaces. Any idea what a good word for this might be? Some have suggesting diging, for digitial reading, others have suggested screen-reading, scanning, grazing, skimming….but i came up with the neologism “screening” as in “I’m screening the news now on my computer, call you back later” [text msg to friend]. You can read more about my “screening” campaign as “zippy1300″ on Google search under blogs….

  8. on 26 Aug 2009 at 8:32 pm Danny Bloom

    btw, there’s a candy bar in Taiwan sold as GUTS on the package in English. I asked some college kids why the name is GUTS and they said the adverts on TV say that if you eat this candybar, you will have GUTS, ie, courage, as in “he has guts”. Go figure.

  9. on 27 Aug 2009 at 10:16 pm Erma

    Inspector,

    You are right that there are tons of great product names at Uwajimaya. You didn’t mention my favorite one: Couque d’asses.

    http://images.google.com/images?q=couque%20d%27asses

    It’s quite tasty, but the name is what really sells it.

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