Can We Name It? Yes We Can!

Nov 10th 2011

Today's topic comes courtesy of my daughter, who woke up in the middle of the night last night with a random observation: "Hey! I just realized that Bob the Builder and Barack Obama have the same motto!"

I've written at some length (1, 2) about the name Barack Obama and all it signifies. I have never written a word about cartoon construction mogul Bob the Builder. Because, you know, his name is Bob. And he builds stuff.

But Bob is an international phenomenon, and his name is a perfect testbed for the process of literary name translation. The Bob the Builder name has three components:

1. The guy's name is Bob.
2. He's a builder.
3. Alliteration.

Don't underestimate that third component. There's a reason the show's creators didn't name him, say, Stan the Builder. Bob's close cousin Thomas the Tank Engine offers further evidence of the power of alliteration.

In the best case, a translator can hit all three component targets. Germany's Bob der Baumeister, Poland's Bob Budowniczy, Norway's Byggmester Bob and the Netherlands' Bob de Bouwer are all triple bullseyes. France's Bob le Bricoleur ("Bob the Handyman") comes within a hair's breadth. If your local language isn't accommodating with B vocabulary, though -- or if Bob isn't a workable name for your audience -- something has to give.

In Finland, the name was the element that yielded: Puuha-Pete wears the tool belt and hardhat for Finnish kids. Pete is the character's personal name, and Puuha means a task or undertaking. But the Puuha-Pete association is so strong that "smart" online translators that look at context and usage patterns actually translate Puuha as "Bob"! (See last week's post for more on names in auto-translation.) Additional Bob-free, alliterating versions of the character name include the Slovenian Mojster Miha and the Scottish Gaelic Calum Clachair.

In some other countries, translators decided that Bob was the essential element and let the alliteration slide. Examples include Greece's Bob o Mastoras, Serbia's Majstor Bob, and Portugal's Bob, o Construtor.

Finally, lowest marks go to two names that miss multiple targets:

- The Czech name Bořek stavitel, which ditches the Bob but doesn't bother alliterating. Now that would have been a natural home for Stan the Builder: Standa stavitel. Bořek, in case you're wondering, is a short form of Bořivoj, a Slavic name unrelated to Robert. Of course, if you ask Google you'll get cartoon-centric translations, so Bořek translates to Bob in langauges like German and French...and, of course, to Pete in Finnish.

- Spain's Bob y sus amigos ("Bob and his friends.") This is the only translation that fails to mention that Bob is A BUILDER. My guess is this was a strategic attempt to ride the coattails of Thomas the Tank Engine, whose show is known as "Thomas y sus amigos." In the process, though, they robbed poor Bob of his very essence. I'll take the workmanlike Latin American version Bob, el Constructor over that every time.

Names in Autotranslation: A Quiz

Nov 3rd 2011

When I research international name trends, Google Translate is my best buddy. It lets me navigate, say, an Estonian government page with a fighting chance of telling the baby name stats apart from the list of top exports. In the end, though, I have to be able to pick my way through the Estonian original -- because autotranslaters don't just translate the page, they translate the names.

Sometimes it's a name-to-name translation, so that Yevgeni becomes Eugene. Other times it's a more literal translation that reveals the name's essence in its native land, like rendering the Bulgarian name Boglarka as Buttercup. Those are successful translations, but they're still "wrong" in the name sense. A Boglarka is just a Boglarka.

Sometimes, of course, the translation is less successful. Machine translation is devilishly hard, and a context-free name list is a particular challenge. The result may be literally correct but stylistically tone-deaf, like translating Savannah as Grassland. Or the autotranslator might guess wrong among multiple meanings, rendering Rose as "Got up." Occasionally, the poor translation engines just seem to flip out. On a Romanian website, I recently saw the classic name Florin, from the Latin root meaning "flower," translated as...Barry.

I've collected some Google name translations of varying qualities below. Can you match the autotranslation and origin to the name? (Answers follow.)


Autotranslation Name
1. Cloud (Icelandic) A. Akseli
2. Elmer Fudd (Finnish) B. Prodromos
3. High Definition (Vietnamese)      C. Rókur
4. Jack Frost (Turkish) D. Elmeri
5. Liquidation (Vietnamese) E. Ayaz
6. Paladin (Hungarian) F. Levente
7. Precursor (Greek) H. Trung Nghĩa
8. Shaft (Finnish) I. Axel
9. Shoulder (Swedish) J. Thánh Thể


Autotranslation Name
1. Agriculture (Greek) A. Eyð
2. Bluegrass (Lithuanian) B. Paya
3. Complete (Swedish) C. Rannvá
4. Destroy (Icelandic) D. Klara
5. Enter (Finnish) E. Georgia
6. Executed (Vietnamese) F. Migle
7. Investigation (Icelandic) G. Gabija
8. Paradise (Bulgarian) H. Anna
9. Wax Candle (Lithuanian)       I. Da Thi


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Autotranslation Name
1. Cloud (Icelandic) Rókur
2. Elmer Fudd (Finnish) Elmeri
3. High Definition (Vietnamese) Trung Nghĩa
4. Jack Frost (Turkish) Ayaz
5. Liquidation (Vietnamese) Thánh Thể
6. Paladin (Hungarian) Levente
7. Precursor (Greek) Prodromos
8. Shaft (Finnish) Akseli
9. Shoulder (Swedish) Axel
Autotranslation Name
1. Agriculture (Greek) Georgia
2. Bluegrass (Lithuanian) Migle
3. Complete (Swedish) Klara
4. Destroy (Icelandic) Eyð
5. Enter (Finnish) Anna
6. Executed (Vietnamese) Da Thi
7. Investigation (Icelandic) Rannvá
8. Paradise (Bulgarian) Paya
9. Wax Candle (Lithuanian) Gabija

If the Shoe (Name) Fits...

Oct 27th 2011

Walking through a warehouse-style shoe store, I couldn't help but notice how many of the shoeboxes bore women's names. The DKNY "Sophie" flat; the The Mephisto "Alison" mary jane. Why those names and not others? What kind of names do shoemakers choose most? And do certain names match certain shoes?

To find out, I turned to a vast shoe data depository: I searched Zappos for shoe models named for 100 different popular girls' names. (More methodology detail below.)

The top female shoe names:

1. Bella
2. Madison
3 (tie). Chloe
5. Naomi
6 (tie). Julia
8 (tie). Maya

And the popular names with the fewest shoe namesakes (tied at zero):


Some definite trends emerge. The popular shoe names names are visually simpler. They're shorter on average, with standard spellings and mostly straightforward pronunciations. It's definitely about visual/written impact -- the number of syllables in the spoken name doesn't correlate with shoe namesakes at all.

The chosen names are vowel heavy as well. Names ending in a vowel sound averaged 1 1/2 more shoe namesakes than names ending in a consonant sound. That might seem to point to a preference for clearly feminine names, but androgynous usage doesn't turn out to be an issue. Notice, for instance, names like Bailey and Taylor in the top 10.

I also found some differences in the kinds of names given to infants' and kids' shoe models vs. women's. Kids' shoe names are, well, cuddlier. More Bellas and Emmas, fewer Averys and Vanessas.

And now for the finding that surprised me most: they shoemakers aren't choosing very well. I can say this with confidence because there's almost no relationship between the style of name and the style of shoe. I routinely found the same name being applied to spangly flip-flops, sleek leather boots, comfort walking shoes, and leopard-print platform stilettos. For a typical example, here are the three models of shoes called Scarlett:

(Images above are from the Scarlett shoes available for purchase at

Now, I can see that there could be value in naming against type. If you're creating a comfort walking shoe, for instance, you might want to avoid comfy, old-fashioned names to keep the words "old lady shoe" far from buyers' minds. But if you're delivering a black, studded, high-heeled cross between a cowboy boot and a motorcycle boot, what the heck does a name like Emma or Amelia do for you? And why would your competitors turn around and apply that same name to an espadrille?

With their apparently random shoe-name matches, the shoemakers aren't using the names to signal ANYTHING about their products. Isn't that a waste of a good name?

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Shoe name methodology:

I looked at the the 100 most popular names for girls in the U.S., after eliminating: names that could be chosen by marketers based on non-name meanings, such as Serenity and London; the name Mary because of thousands of search results for the "mary jane" style of shoes; and the name Eva because search results included the thousands of models with EVA insoles.

Model (not brand) names of women's and girls' shoes (not slippers) were counted at Zappos. Exact spelling matches only. A shoe family (multiple colors, fabrics, etc.) counted as just one model. The name had to be used as a first name, so "Mamma Mia" didn't score for Mia, or "Madison Avenue" for Madison.

And a final note: don't try this at home. Not only was my head swimming after many hours of squinting to tell shoe models apart, but I'm now at serious risk of spending $300 on a really awesome pair of Sophia boots.