5 tips for making a bad pun: Fairtilizer

Originally published Jun 27, 2007

Phil Butler over at ReadWriteWeb has written a post about a new online music service called Fairtilizer. Oh dear. The Name Inspector doesn’t even know where to begin.

This name is presumably a pun: the first syllable of the word fertilizer has been changed to the similar-sounding word fair. Or maybe the word air has been used as the end of that syllable. Either way there are problems.

As The Name Inspector wrote in his post about different types of name, “Nothing sounds dumber than a bad pun” (or, if you translate that statement into Russian and then back into English with Google translate, “Nothing sounds glupee than bad pun“). Fairtilizer, unfortunately, is a bad pun.

So what makes a pun bad? That’s a really tough question to answer. But The Name Inspector is going to try to reverse-engineer this name to come up with some guidelines.

1. Base your pun on words that are semantically iffy on their own.

Fertilizer is not the greatest word to use in any name. Sure, it’s nice that fertilizer makes plants grow, and the metaphorical use of that idea in the context of listening to music makes a lot of sense. Your music collection and your musical awareness will be nurtured here. So far so good.

But fertilizer is also manure. People sometimes say fertilizer when they’re too delicate to say bullshit. And fair isn’t so great either. Sure, in a name like Fair Trade Coffeeit sounds pretty good, because the familiar phrase fair trade makes it clear that the relevant meaning is related to fairness and justice. But fair also means ’so-so’. Not great. Not good. Just OK. Fair.

2. Combine meanings without creating relevance.

It’s hard to see how the meanings of fertilizer and fair might relate to one another. That’s partly a result of using fertilizer metaphorically while also building a pun on it. What would make fertilizer more just and fair? Is there something unfair about most fertilizer that makes this fertilizer special, metaphorically speaking? Compare this pun name with a name like Farecast, made out of the words fare and forecast. It’s immediately apparent how those words relate to one another: the service forecasts what fares will be in the future.

Maybe they were going for air, not fair. Metaphorically fertilizing the “airwaves” (even though we’re talking about the web here) makes a little more sense. But the word fair stands out so much that air is not likely to be recognized in there.

3. Invite scatological humor.

More than one commenter on the web has claimed to mistake the name for Fartilizer. Childish, yes, but it’s important to avoid provoking the eleven-year-old inside all of us.

4. Use morphologically complex words.

The word fertilizer has three meaningful parts: fertile ize er. That kind of complexity competes with the intrinsic complexity of a pun.

5. Create a name with an unnatural pronunciation

At least in American English, the vowel sound of the word fair sounds strange followed by the second syllable of the name Fairtilizer. It’s hard to think of words that contain that sequence of sounds.

Now the folks who created Fairtilizer are from Geneva, Switzerland. That means they’re probably French speakers. It’s possible that the name works better in French. The French verb meaning ‘to fertilize’ is fertiliser, and the first syllable of that word is more similar to the first syllable of Fairtilizer than to the first syllable of English fertilizer. So the pronunciation might have seemed more natural to them because of their linguistic background. The word fair and the -izer ending are tip-offs, however, that this is supposed to be an English name. In English it just doesn’t work.

An online music service should have a musical name that strikes the right tone. Fairtilizer falls flat. Maybe you should sign up for alpha testing and give them feedback about the name.

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