Thursday, May 21, 2009

Polyglottal Bottle Plot

Assiduous readers of this blog will recall that I once had occasion to take to task the hotel-toiletries firm Gilchrist & Soames for its reckless and cavalier approach to labelling its bottles in what it endearingly imagined to be French.

You, dear reader, have no doubt moved on since then, caught up in the ebb and flow of daily life and its attendant demands. Rest assured, though, that I have remained steadfast and alert to the linguistical shortcomings of the companies that furnish our nation's hotels with tiny plastic bottles of goo.

It's a lonely and desolate beat, untroubled by sensational revelations, media scrums or mass outbreaks of public outrage, but I like to think that I'm performing a vital service in shining the uncompromising spotlight of scrutiny into a dark and neglected corner of consumer affairs.

Today that spotlight falls upon Elsyl, a range of hotel toiletries whose bottles, according to this hotel-toiletries website, have an aluminium lid that gives this unique range a little extra.

Look carefully, however, and you'll notice that the aluminium lid is not the only notable feature of the Elsyl range:

[Click picture for bigness]

It's hardly surprising that the makers of Elsyl are trying to distract you with their shiny lids, for their labels represent an attempt at international jet-set chic that can best be described as 'woeful'.

I wonder if I can imagine the process by which they were created.

...Wibbly lines descend across the screen...

BRANDING EXECUTIVE 1: What we need is a label that lends the product an air of continental elegance. An atmosphere of cosmopolitan élan. An aura of European finesse.

BRANDING EXECUTIVE 2: So what you're saying is that the label has to be in English and French.

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes, yes, good. But not just French, that's so parochial. That's the kind of narrow-sighted caper you'd expect from Gilchrist & Soames. No, we need to project an image of truly international refinement.

EXECUTIVE 2: So, English, French...and Italian?

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes. And - what's the other one? - German.

There is a brief pause for reflection.

EXECUTIVE 2: Can you speak any of these languages?

EXECUTIVE 1: Not really. Except English. I can speak English. Can you?

EXECUTIVE 2: I can speak English too.

EXECUTIVE 1: No, I mean any of the others.


EXECUTIVE 1: We could look the words up in a dictionary.

EXECUTIVE 2: (sucking teeth) I don't know...that's what Gilchrist & Soames did, and they got stick for it on Patroclus's blog.

EXECUTIVE 1: You're right. We don't want to get stick on Patroclus's blog. That's the very essence of what we don't want.

EXECUTIVE 2: It would be a PR disaster.

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes, you don't want to get on the wrong side of the blogs. I've heard that Patroclus has literally tens of readers.

EXECUTIVE 2: I have a marvellous idea!

EXECUTIVE 1: Hurrah!

EXECUTIVE 2: You said we only need to provide an air of continental elegance. An atmosphere of cosmopolitan élan. An aura of European...what was it again?

EXECUTIVE 1: Finesse.

EXECUTIVE 2: Finesse. Well, how about we just translate one word into each language?

EXECUTIVE 1: Brilliant! Which one shall we translate?

EXECUTIVE 2: How about 'with'? It's the easiest one.

EXECUTIVE 1: Fantastic! Quick - to Babelfish!

Some moments later...

EXECUTIVE 2: There, look. Perfect.

EXECUTIVE 1: 'Bath cream avec ginseng'. Oh yeah, baby. That's cosmopolitanism, right there.

EXECUTIVE 2: We're surely the best branding executives in the whole world.

EXECUTIVE 1: We surely are.

NEXT WEEK: Patroclus fearlessly exposes the unnecessary comma on the reverse of the Aussie 'Miracle Moist' shampoo bottle.


Tim Footman said...

'Bath cream' sounds like something with which you clean the bath. And 'ELSYL' sounds like a high-strength industrial disinfectant, probably used in abbatoirs.

Nibus said...

The best thing to do with these is to er...'edit' them with typwritten labels saying "A. Hitler - Urine Samples, 1933-36" then leave them at your local museum.

Karen's Mouth said...

Ah that made me laugh. Also reminded me of that Big Train sketch with Simon Pegg with all the "do you speak English?" "No I'm really sorry I don't at all, always meant to learn but just never got round to it etc etc"

LC said...

Worth the wait - welcome back.

Sean McManus said...

Nothing to add except to say this made me laugh. Thanks.

pleite said...

I had a little bottle of shampoo recently that had 'assainit le cuir chevelu' written on it, which I assumed meant 'sanitises your hairy leather' but probably doesn't, let's face it. Can't remember if it had a noteworthy lid.

Boz said...

What they all said. This made me laugh. A Lot.

james henry said...

I stole all those from a hotel, by the way, lured BY THE SHINY LIDS.

tom said...

I'm reminded of the slogan for Coca-Cola's "Dasani" brand of water (yes, brand of water):

"It's got stuff ordinary water doesn't have"

which is not really something you want to start thinking about!

I wonder how it would badly translate ...

Marsha Klein said...

My favourite bit:

'That's the very essence of what we don't want.'

I intend to use this at the first available opportunity.

John Cowan said...

Well, to be fair they also managed to correctly translate English shampoo into French shampooing. (How do you pronounce that, anyhow? As if it were spelled champouïgne?)

But as to so-called unnecessary commas what is it you Brits have against them anyhow must you scrutinize every sentence and leave in only those absolutely necessary or can you possibly be led to see reason whereby commas are left in even if technically redundant in order to reliably assist the reader in comprehending the otherwise unending stream of vocables?

patroclus said...

Ooh, hello all, thanks for the nice comments.

Tim: This casts a whole new light on the kind of hotels James gets put up in by the BBC when he ventures up to London.

Nibus: Judging by the bottle on the right, A. Hitler must have suffered from acute dehydration.

Karen, LC, Sean, Boz: Ahh, thank you. If it made other people laugh I'm happy.

BiB: Ha, yes, 'sanitises the hairy leather' is about right. And they say French is such a beautiful language.

James: Lure By The Shiny Lids is surely the title of the next Sufjan Stevens album.

Tom: Your comment reminded me of this diet water (yes, really), what I saw on Twitter yesterday.

Marsha: I think I stole that phrase from my Dad. No doubt he'll be along shortly and can confirm.

John: Yes, I was going to put something in about how they'd managed to come up with shampooing (pronounced just as you describe), but thought I'd gone on long enough already. Of course the French for 'conditioner' is the marvellously literal après-shampooing. Perhaps there just wasn't room on the label for such a long word.

As to the unnecessary comma, well, [*adopts mysterious tone of voice*] all will be revealed. Er, at some point, when I next have time to blog. So in about three months' time, probably.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Hi, just passing by.

Lovely post. 'The very essence', etc.? Don't think it's mine, but I'm looking forward to using it to replace 'This is something well worth not failing to miss' which is getting a bit worn now.

Erm... The French treat the 'ooing' of 'shampooing' as a diphthong, so that it comes out like 'shompwa' with the final 'ng' a tiny vestige of nasality.

patroclus said...

Hm, maybe I've never actually heard anyone French say 'shampooing'. No one is to trust anything I say.

Boz said...

When I clicked for bigness I was confused by scale. Are these actually all three foot high?

ScroobiousScrivener said...

See, what bothers me about the Aussie bottles is the bloody stupid line "There's more to life than hair, but it's a good place to start."

No it isn't. It really, really isn't.

Mags said...

My only great comma battle is with the Oxford comma. I like it because I'm often subbing long technical stuff which veers into list making, and the comma gives the reader a much needed breather.

I can't recall if it was you, or someone else mildly obsessed with hotel toiletries, who pointed out the English 'vanity kit' becomes in French 'necessary toiletries' and how much that reveals about the two nations.

Vicus Scurra said...

I think that you erred a little on the presumptuous side when you said "You, dear reader, have no doubt moved on since then". I have to inform you that this is not the case. I have been in a quasi-limbotic state for some time now, and while I welcome your latest report, I trust that the interval between this and the next one will be less noticeable.

Further, I note that my wv is "exual". Whoever heard of coitus without the hissing?

Valerie said...

I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we have all been in need of the spontaneous hoot we let out when reading that sophisticated attempt at continentality (which really should be a word, except that, if it is, it probably means "can keep themselves from peeing in their pants").

I'm looking forward to the comma discussion. It's been one of my only serious beefs with British English. Meanwhile, I'm sure commas they consider extraneous are causing cross-ponders to break out in hives.

Dave said...

Too sophisticated for Norfolk, I'm afraid.

patroclus said...

Boz: They are actually so Lilliputian that I couldn't get a picture of the label that wasn't blurry, until James deployed the photographing-tiny-things skills he learned from doing Toy-Fu.

Scroobious: I have many, many issues with the Aussie shampoo label, including that one. Also I wonder if Aussie is the originator of the horrible 'faux-chumminess' school of marketing that you see everywhere these days (yes, I'm looking at you, Innocent Drinks).

Mags: I've become quite fond of the Oxford comma too. And it wasn't me that made that excellent observation about vanity vs. necessity, but I may well nick 'mildly obsessed with hotel toiletries' for a future blog tagline.

Vicus: Just for you, I shall repair this instant to the bathroom and photograph some more shocking exhibits.

Valerie: This particular comma that I have in mind is most definitely surplus to requirements. I don't think it will cause anyone to fight anyone with a copy of the Economist Style Guide or the AP Stylebook, but we'll see.

Dave: Fear not, for I happen to be the owner of a tube of Norfolk lavender body lotion, to the labelling of which I may eventually turn my critical attention. Your services as on-the-ground researcher and fact-checker may be required.

Dave Bartlett said...

I sense you feel strongly about pointless punctuation after your comment about superfluous commas.
I don't know if you know of the Seabrook brand of crisps, (maybe only available in the North of England, I'm not sure,) But it wasn't enough that they had to label their bags with flavours like (typed here exactly as they appeared on the bag:)
"Cheese" and "Onion"
"Salt" and "Vinegar"
Smoky "Bacon"
(perhaps "Smoky" Bacon would have been almost acceptable!)
but they also insisted on labelling every bag with their wonderful sales slogan:
"More" than a "Crisp"
Yes - more than a crisp: an insult to anyone who actually speaks English as well!

Anonymous said...

God, that was good. Like a glass of cold lager after a tramp across the Sahara.

Not just good, it was molto bon.


Smat said...

nothing amusing or witty to say, but had to leave a message as the wv is "pants"

Mummy/Crit said...

Looking forward to the comma expose (and God, if I could remember which accent to use there, I would. But it's been more than 20 years since I actually had to pretend to know french) and as for the faux chumminess, we're all about the distinct lack of wankery here.