Name watching at Uwajimaya

Originally published Aug 14, 2009

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.

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