Ikea: Peppered Caca for the holidays

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John Brezinsky writes:

I used to live in Moscow, where everyone has long been amused that Ikea chose to name a line of wine glasses "svalka". свалка can either mean a garbage dump or a dumpster.

I was very amused when I saw the name of the official Ikea ginger cookies at the location in Red Hook, Brooklyn.They're called "pepparkaka". Everyone who saw them did a double-take, and several people (adults and children) were joking about how the last thing they wanted to eat was peppered caca. Is there a word for this kind of fail? Wikipedia calls them brand blunders.

Wikipedia explains that

IKEA products are identified by one-word (rarely two-word) names. Most of the names are Scandinavian in origin. Although there are some exceptions, most product names are based on a special naming system developed by IKEA.

  • Upholstered furniture, coffee tables, rattan furniture, bookshelves, media storage, doorknobs: Swedish placenames (for example: Klippan)
  • Beds, wardrobes, hall furniture: Norwegian place names
  • Dining tables and chairs: Finnish place names
  • Bookcase ranges: Occupations
  • Bathroom articles: Scandinavian lakes, rivers and bays
  • Kitchens: grammatical terms, sometimes also other names
  • Chairs, desks: men's names
  • Fabrics, curtains: women's names
  • Garden furniture: Swedish islands
  • Carpets: Danish place names
  • Lighting: terms from music, chemistry, meteorology, measures, weights, seasons, months, days, boats, nautical terms
  • Bedlinen, bed covers, pillows/cushions: flowers, plants, precious stones
  • Children's items: mammals, birds, adjectives
  • Curtain accessories: mathematical and geometrical terms
  • Kitchen utensils: foreign words, spices, herbs, fish, mushrooms, fruits or berries, functional descriptions
  • Boxes, wall decoration, pictures and frames, clocks: colloquial expressions, also Swedish place names

The same article mentions some other cross-linguistic brand misfortunes from Ikea:

Some of IKEA's Swedish product names have amusing or unfortunate connotations in other languages, sometimes resulting in the names being withdrawn in certain countries. Notable examples for English include the "Jerker" computer desk (discontinued several years ago as of 2013), "Fukta" plant spray, "Fartfull" workbench, and "Lyckhem" (meaning bliss). Kitchen legs are called FAKTUM (called AKURUM in the United States). The latest addition is the new "Askholmen" outdoor suite.

Of course, "kaka" is just Swedish for "cookie" or "cake", and "pepparkaka" is just Swedish for "gingerbread". So this one is just a "false friend", not exactly a brand blunder.

And "svalka" means "coolness" in Swedish, even if it means "dumpster" in Russian.

Given that there are a couple of thousand somewhat-widely-spoken languages, and (say) 500 some-what embarrassing words or short phrases in each one of them, there's a pretty good chance that any randomly-chosen brand name will turn out to be uncomfortably close in sound to something that means "snot" or "trashcan" or whatever in at least one of them…



43 Comments

  1. JCD said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    Pepparkaka (literally pepper cookie) is just the Swedish word for gingerbread, it's not even a brand name.

  2. Lynn Cornell said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    "Pepparkaka" is just a type of cookie; Ikea did not invent the name. Pepparkaka (like meatballs) existed long before Ikea did.

  3. Ethan said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    Color me mystified. I don't know what a "kitchen leg" is, nor why branding one as "faktum" would be objectionable.
    Perhaps because I'm sitting up here in strongly Scandinavian influenced Seattle, "somethingorotherkaka" for a cookie sounds perfectly normal. The favored pastry at the local Danish bakery is smorkaka, for instance.

  4. Mara K said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    Is that a s'more cookie?

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

    I'm not sure if the benchmark ought to be "a couple of thousand somewhat-widely-spoken languges" versus "a very small number (possibly <2 ?) of languages-other-than-Swedish that are a mandatory subject of instruction in Swedish schools." Of course, official L2 instruction in a school environment tends to avoid express instruction in taboo lexical items, but that usually inspires students to learn about them via other means. Although to be fair I probably learned outside of official channels while in high school maybe 2 or 3 vulgar German words for "excrement" but no doubt there are a number of others I didn't learn but might be imprudent from a marketing perspective to evoke when selling to native-German-speaker customers.

  6. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    Ethan: Consider "faktum" pronounced with the first vowel like that in "Bach", not "back", as Anglophones often do in clearly foreign words.

    And some of these name choices… well, IKEA really faktum up good, didn't they.

  7. Leo Rademakers said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    It happens from English into other languages too: some 30 years ago a new perfume was introduced on the Dutch market, under the fine English name 'Flicker'. Any Dutchman could have told the people behind it that the Dutch word for 'faggot' or 'queer' (Flikker) was not a suitable name for such a product. Not in those days anyway… not even in Holland.

  8. Moses said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

    The classic is still calling a car the Nova, and expecting it to sell in Spain. Well done Vauxhall, part of GM.

  9. Anna Ronkainen said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    In Swedish, the word for excrement is a minimal pair to "kaka" /ka:ka/, namely "kacka" /kak:a/.

  10. Tim said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    What a waste of energy! Neither a brand nor a 'brand blunder'. Just a schoolboy giggle about an everyday Swedish word. Do you think the Swedes even bother to laugh about the somewhat similar English biscuits called 'ginger nuts'?

  11. Ethan said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    @Aaron Toivo: In my part of the world, which for this purpose is I think all of North America, the vowel in "Bach" is like the o in "lock" or "clock". While I can imagine someone using that for the a in "faktum" if they were attempting a Swedish accent, that doesn't get you anywhere near the vowel in "luck" or "cluck" that I now see is what someone was concerned with avoiding. Where is it that people pronounce "Bach" like "buck"??

    (and even after visiting Google images I'm still not sure what a "kitchen leg" is)

  12. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Pepparkaka have been around for about as long as I can remember, certainly at least 15 years.

  13. D.O. said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    IKEA's own translation of pepparkaka — ginger thins, is written right there on the box, but given that American high schoolers are known to get all giggly when studying cleavage in geology classes, there's no point in arguing.

  14. Jamie said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    @Moses, urban legend, I'm afraid.
    http://www.snopes.com/business/misxlate/nova.asp

  15. uebergeek said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    Some brand names really don't translate well…
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700078810/Some-brand-names-dont-translate-well.html

    At first I thought Barf detergent was a joke; however it appears to be an actual Iranian product. Evidently, "barf" means snow in Persian. But it's interesting that the manufacturer labels Barf packages in English – at least it looks that way for Iran and Russia:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6qwE7lmGRM

    I wonder if the joke is intentional? Or would an Iranian or Russian reader actually think of snow when faced with that labeling?

  16. Marta said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

    @ Ethan:
    Speak for yourself. In my part of the world, which for this post I'll define as the eight square feet of North America under my computer and me right now, Aaron Toivo's post cleared up the confusion I initially shared with you.

    Oh, and a "kitchen leg" is a leg for a kitchen cabinet:
    http://www.ikea.com/au/en/catalog/products/40175540/
    I'll grant you that "kitchen cabinet leg" would have been more perspicuous, but kitchen leg is not entirely opaque, either.

  17. Nancy Friedman said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    @Moses: The story about the Nova continues to generate mirth despite being wholly untrue. The Vauxhall Nova was always sold as the Corsa in Spain, and the Chevrolet Nova sold quite briskly in Spanish-speaking Latin America, where "nova" is understood to have a different meaning ("bright star") than "no va" ("doesn't go").

  18. Mark S said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

    Harry Einstein, Borscht Belt comic, was known as Parkyakarkus. His son Albert goes by the name Brooks. This http://on.fb.me/1tdPLYJ is not wholly unrelated to the original post either.

  19. Peter S. said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

    If you look at the vowel chart for Australian accents (http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/voice.html), hud and hard are very close together (although they're distinguished by length). So Bach and buck are close in Australia, but not in America.

    I also think they're close in some British accents, because I've misheard some British song lyrics with these vowels (not that I need confusing foreign accents to mishear song lyrics).

  20. Matt_M said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

    @Ethan:

    In most of the English-speaking world outside of North America, the word "faktum" might indeed sound exactly like "fucktum" if the speaker were to pronounce it as a foreignism.

    In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and much of southern England, the vowel in "luck" is quite similar to the vowels, say, in Spanish "pata". The "luck" vowel is more central, but it's still often more similar to cardinal /a/ than the vowel in "lack" in these varieties of English.

    Note that these varieties wouldn't pronounce "Bach" with the "luck" vowel. Outside of North America, a distinction between short and long vowels (in terms of quantity, I mean, not quality) is still maintained. In Australian English, for example, the vowel in the word "calm" is only slightly different in quality from that in "come", but it's clearly distinguished by length: the vowel in "calm" has a longer duration. "Bach" is pronounced with the long vowel of "calm", reflecting the long /a:/ in the German pronunciation.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    The responses to Ethan (which I characterize as pointing out that the A of FAKTUM is more likely to collide with the LUCK vowel outside north america) don't explain why the FAKTUM items have a special name only for the US market. Last I checked, the US wasn't outside north america.

    I think the guy in Meet the Parents was named Gaylord Focker for the humor value, though, so I think what's actually going on is that the vowel quality isn't relevant at all – you'd get the same jokes no matter what vowel was present, because the consonant sequence is enough to remind people of the taboo.

  22. Sven Sahle said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:03 am

    I cannot imagine IKEA has no department to check its brand names for conflict in common languages. I guess they accept a certain level of apparent weirdness in their names because it fits their intended image.

  23. V said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 4:24 am

    "And "svalka" means "coolness" in Swedish, even if it means "dumpster" in Russian." Hah, and свалка in Bulgarian means a pick-up. As in a flirtatious one.

  24. The Hickory Wind said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    On the subject of the Nova, I wouldn't expect it to provoke muy than a few tired jokes in Spain. I can't imagine it would lead to commercial failure. It isn't obvious enough or funny enough to matter, and it isn't obscene, of course. I also don't think that South Americans are more or less likely to think of new-born stars when they hear the word than Spaniards are, but there you are.

    The Pajero, on the other hand, would have had a real problem…

  25. John Swindle said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 7:26 am

    In Hawaii we see and hear forms like "fock" and (adjectival or adverbial) "focken," but I'd no more pronounce "FAKTUM" as "focked 'em" than pronounce "datum" as "dot 'em." Why? Because it looks like a respelling of an obscure but already existing English word.

  26. BlueLoom said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    While visiting in Copenhagen a few summers ago, we came across racks of timetables for various ferries. I picked up one timetable for each of my two school-aged grandchildren and presented them to the kids, saying, "You really can't start the school year without a good fartplan." Much merriment ensued. Nothing wrong with some good, schoolkid giggles–across three generations.

  27. Matt_M said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    @ John Swindle:

    In Australian English, data and datum are normally pronounced as dɐ:tə and dɐ:tm̩ — that is, something like an American pronunciation of "dotta" and "dottem". This pronunciation is also very common in British English. I guess the origin of this pronunciation is an attempt to revert to a more "authentic" Latin pronunciation of these words. For me as an Australian, darter is what computers process; dater is the name of a Star Wars character (and no, those "r"s aren't meant to be pronounced).

  28. Brett said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    The Snopes page debunking the Chevy Nova myth includes this gem: "Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word "nova" as equivalent to the phrase "no va" and think "Hey, this car doesn't go!" is akin to assuming that English speakers would spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn't include a table."

  29. Gunnar H said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    "Svalka" can be a noun and mean "coolness," but I would sooner read is as a verb: "to cool, refresh." For example, "att svalka törsten" means "to quench one's thirst," which is probably why it was chosen for the name of a line of wine glasses (as Wikipedia says, a "functional description").

    I'm also somewhat mystified by "Askholmen." Surely the K makes it impossible to read as "asshole-men"?

  30. Gunnar H said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    Oh, and "Lyckhem" doesn't mean "bliss," but rather "Happy Home" (it is cognate to "Luck-Home"). Though I guess that's really something to fix on Wikipedia, not here.

  31. Vanya said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    Do you think the Swedes even bother to laugh about the somewhat similar English biscuits called 'ginger nuts'?

    No, but Americans probably would. It is not as bad as "spotted dick" though. For the record,
    German speaking six year olds also find "Pepparkaka" hilarious. If anything though the name probably helps boost sales. "Pfefferkuchen" is just too commonplace.

  32. Theophylact said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    Then, of course, there's Pschitt. But as it doesn't seem to be sold in English-speaking countries, no problem. There's also Calpis, sold in the US as "Calpico".

  33. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    I once (1980?) had to break it to a Swedish ad agency that "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" would be a poor choice for a tag-line. I suspect that there was about a 10% probability that they were having me on.

    The Honda Fit sub-compact, according to Swedish auto news, was originally set to sell in Europe as the Fitta. Unfortunately, fitta means "vagina" in the Scandinavian languages.

  34. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 11:39 am

    Matt_M: In German, the /a/ in "Bach" is short, and not very different from the usual North American or Southern English vowel in "buck". The real difference is, of course, in the final consonant.

    At UC Berkeley there was once a chancellor, also a philosophy professor, who pronounced "Kant" exactly like "cunt".

  35. SlomoSL said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    Speaking about brand-name blunders (or not): Ford happily sells its small SUV – Kuga(TM) – under a name which means "the plague" in Slovene. But since only 1 million Slovenes own a car (out of 2m) that doesn't really plague the company.

  36. michael farris said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 5:53 am

    Has everyone but me forgotten Mr. Brain's Faggots?

    http://mrbrains.co.uk/home/

  37. Rodger C said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 6:51 am

    I guess the origin of this pronunciation is an attempt to revert to a more "authentic" Latin pronunciation of these words.

    An unsuccessful attempt, since dare is an irregular verb and the a is short.

  38. Jongseong Park said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    Why didn't they just go with the plural pepparkakor? Wouldn't that actually be more natural in Swedish (the English translation is the plural "ginger thins", after all)? Or is it somewhat different in Swedish?

  39. Rod Johnson said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    Are the two pronunciations of faktum at issue really so radically different that Ethan et al. genuinely don't understand how there could be a misunderstanding (or at least a joke) there? This seems like faux-obtuseness to me.

  40. Brett said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    @Rod Johnson: There are lots on English words that start with "fact-" and are not at all suggestive of "fuck." So I think some people are genuinely curious what pronunciation someone might use for "faktum" that would evoke tittles.

  41. Ethan said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    @Rod Johnson: I genuinely did not understand what the issue was when I first read the article.

  42. DMT said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 6:00 am

    LL readers who have been following the discussions of Cantonese language in the Hong Kong protests may be interested to know the story of Lufsig.

  43. ZZMike said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

    There's an Ikea near us. They have a pretty good restaurant.

    The thing that stands out is that all the products in this Swedish-themed market are made in China, Viet Nam, India, &c.

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