language miscellanea

Branding the Axolotl

Drawing of an Axolotl by William Steig from “Alpha Beta Chowder” Eliot claimed that feline onomasty was a vexed endeavor, but most people seem to have neither creativity nor compunction. Too many cat names range from the banal (“Mindy”) to the heinous (“Smoke Dancer”). When such unfortunates become part of one’s family, renaming is a strict requirement.

A new cat recently entered our household from the local rescue and, somewhat surprisingly, he arrived with an acceptable name. While not exotic, ‘Alexander’ has impeccable Macedonian roots, and also evokes the first poem from Jeanne and William Steig’s fine abecedarium, Alpha Beta Chowder:

Abhorrent axolotl, scat!
Unless you’d like to feed my cat.

Come at once , dear Alexander,
Have a bit of salamander.
See its tasty little gills?
Don’t they look like lamb-chop frills?

Amphibian, avoid thy fate:
Slither off! Absquatulate!

Photo of an AxolotlThis bit of verse recalled to mind, I began wondering about the the axolotl. One can deduce its Mexican indigenity from the distinctively Nahuatl ‘tl’ at the end of its name (made explicit by its scientific name, Ambystoma mexicanum). The Internet yields up many attractive pictures of these aquatic amphibians. Wikipedia, as ever, provides a reasonable overview, but I found that my attention was captured by this somewhat curious paragraph:

In Japan, axolotls are known by the trademark WuperRuper (ウーパールーパー). Originally the trademark was going to be registered as “SuperRuper”, but since there are many trademarks starting with “super,” the S was changed to a W so the name could be registered more quickly. It is said that the reason why they are not sold as “axolotl” is to avoid them being called “aho no rōtoru”, a similar-sounding Japanese phrase meaning “stupid old man.”

Capitalism once again joins with the Adamic impulse to name the creatures of the land and the sea! This unavoidably calls to mind the mighty Sea-Monkey. (Disclaimer: proceeds from your brine shrimp purchase may be used to support neo-Nazi causes.)

I’m curious: how many creatures have been “rebranded” to make them more marketable? Offhand, I recall that “Chilean sea bass” is a marketing name for the Patagonian toothfish (and the Chileans, in fact, call it “bacalao de profundidad“). More basically, I suppose, we use the language of our Norman overlords for our beef, mutton, and pork, rather than that of those rude peasants who raise the dirty oxen, sheep, and pigs. In truth, though, I’m thinking more of specific acts of commercially-minded naming rather than general linguistic trends.

Anything else come to mind?

[Photo of axolotl courtesy of amphioxus at flickr.]

2 replies on “Branding the Axolotl”

How about Danish / Rose of Muhammad Pastry, French fries / freedom fries, etc.? Not an animal, I suppose.

Someone once had a discussion with me online about how differently Aristotle might have thought if he had been Chinese, say, or Mexican. I said that if he were Mexican he would have been called Aristotl. That was in lieu of something serious to say on the matter.

I admit that I’ve never thought of a pomme de terre as a “creature of the land,” but perhaps that is due to excessively narrow thinking.