What’s in a name? Well – when it comes to scientific equipment- too many capitals and a penchant for the pretentious says Russ Swan
I WONDER if there is any field of human endeavour, with the exception of the military, that takes such delight in creating obscure and baffling names for things as the makers of laboratory equipment?
We know that the armed forces use bizarre language to hide the true meaning of innocuous sounding phrases like ‘collateral damage’ and ‘carpeting’, because the truth is fairly horrible. But what of the instrument manufacturers who select unlikely names for their products, and then attempt to make them memorable by delivering those names with bizarre arrangements of characters that look as if they’d accidentally let a three-year old play on their work computer? What is their motivation?
If you haven’t noticed some of these travesties against the English language, look no further than the product pages towards the rear of this magazine.
Perhaps the least offensive of the many sins that may be found there is the propensity of some companies to SHOUT at us, their customers. Since email became the standard form of communication (the best part of 20 years by now), it is widely understood that capital letters denote shouting, and yet there are a number of companies who will always put their own NAMES and their PRODUCT NAMES in shouty letters.
Their hope is to make the company stand out from its competitors. As you scanned this page, I guarantee that you noticed the capitalised words in the paragraph above, before you started reading. To a marketing manager, getting noticed is the be-all and end-all of existence. I would like to point out that, on my way to the office this morning, I noticed a homeless man urinating in a bus shelter and shouting at passing cars as he did so. Just saying.
The only names that should be capitalised are those pronounced as letters (like BBC, for example). If you’re in any doubt about this, phone the main switchboard of a company like Sanyo, and listen to the way they answer. The day the receptionist says “Good morning, Ess-Ay-En-Why-Oh” is the day they get to write it down as SANYO.
To my eyes, the opposite of shouting is equally offensive. The dawn of the internet age brought about the rise of the company that is so casual and relaxed that it can’t even be bothered to give its own name a capital letter. These weren’t just the jeans- wearing trendy firms selling various flavours of nothingness, but old-economy manufacturers like the gas filtration specialist domnick hunter, since amalgamated into the Parker empire. Presumably some genius thought it would be hip to be, y’ know, down with the kids and stuff.
Or should that be geniüs? Another deplorable trend in the naming of things has been the use of non-standard characters like umlauts, accents, and even punctuation marks within names. Now, I’m all for internationalisation, but the motivation for these polyglot constructions has nothing to do with breaking down international barriers. It turns out that some sadly misguided marketer once suggested that the umlaut made a word more appear friendlier, because when added above a letter u or o it resembles a smiley face. Customers would subconsciously think, “ahh, nice smiley face, let’s buy lots of that product”.
Sadly, for many of us, the umlaut is more likely to bring back painful memories of dodgy heavy metal bands and their pretentious identities (come to think of it, if I had any musical ability, I would form a band called the Pretentious Umlaüts).
There are a number of select operations that manage to combine several of these crimes against language into high-density packages of unremitting horror. I could name several, but would probably get a nosebleed, so let’s consider just a couple.
Firms in the Synoptics group are particularly prone to excessive use of capitals, often starting a name in lower case before coughing up a quick shout in the middle – so Synbiosis offers us colony counters with names like aCOLade and aCOLyte. The latter holds a special place in the heart of many of us who write about science for a living, for being launched with a non-alphabetic character in its name: when first announced, we were solemnly informed that the correct presentation was åCOLyte. Meanwhile sister company Syngene manages to combine unnecessary capitalisation with unnecessary punctuation in its G:BOX gel imaging device.
It’s a close thing, but our prize for the most inconsistent approach to naming conventions must go to Tap Biosystems, which likes to call itself TAP because it was once known as The Automation Partnership (but it fails the phone test). As well as throwing unnecessary capital Ts on the end of some products (Selec-tee and Compact-tee), it also uses the all-lower style for proper nouns like the ambr bioreactor, and creates names based on the strangest of acronyms. Its 3D cell culture system is called RAFT which, apparently, stands for ‘real architecture for 3D tissue’. How would you spell ‘3’?
Call me old-fashioned, but I like my product names in good old alphanumeric – like the new 25x microscope objective lens launched recently by Olympus and called the XLPLN25XSVMP. Ten letters and two digits like this offer 1.4×1016 possible combinations, which should be enough for all the products you’re ever likely to need.
Russ Swan, Editor of LabHomepage.com