Nomen Est Omen

We return to the minefield of automotive nomenclature. Mind where you step. 

Highly infectious. (c) Tata Corporation

The process of naming a new car can be surprisingly complex and drawn-out, and even then certain pitfalls are sometimes overlooked, causing delays, unplanned expenditure and in a few cases, embarrassment and retraction. These pitfalls can be largely be categorized in lingual miscues (mostly of the sexual or scatological variety), historically insensitive names, legal copyright infringements, or simple bad luck.*

To start with that latter category: Tata Motors introduced a new small car in 2016 named Zica. Unfortunately for the Indian manufacturer, the introduction coincided with the outbreak of the fearsome Zika virus in South America; the Zica hastily renamed Tiago. All press photos had to be redone, previously built Zicas had to be rebadged and the publicity material already printed was by necessity destroyed.

By far the most common (and possibly amusing) cause of nameplate trouble is using a word to christen your new car which seems perfectly innocent in your own language, yet transpires to be anything but in another. Toyota’s MR2 (phonetically merde in French) and the Rolls-Royce Silver Mist are both well documented.

By the way, the Mist-to-Shadow renaming reason is absolutely true: it was confirmed to me by the late Roger C’Raster who was responsible for the sales and marketing of Rolls-Royce in North America in the 1950s and 1960s and Royal Family relations later on.

To these scatological mishaps, the Fiat Regata may be added. In the Swedish language the word means pile of dung. Therefore a ‘t’ was added to create Regatta for cars sold there. Nissan’s Moco is a mini-MPV only marketed in Japan and southeast Asia. If Nissan has any plans to sell the Moco in Spanish speaking areas they would be wise to think of again as moco means snot in Spanish. A name change would also be in order for Mazda, who sold a Kei-car in their domestic market badged Laputa – a female sex-worker in Spain.

Automotive nomenclature has repeatedly been the cause of sniggering in certain countries for being a close or sometimes exact match for the local slang for either male or female genitalia or their usage in the act of self-pleasure. Opel was forced to drop the Ascona name in Portugal and replace it with the rather prosaic 1604 since it turned out to be Portuguese slang for that centre of male desire. Recently Hyundai had to change the Kona name to Kauai in Portugal for broadly similar reasons.

Honda’s Beat did not cause the Japanese firm trouble in France (phonetically it is French slang for the male member), largely since the Beat was sold only in its home market. The Honda Fitta however was quickly rechristened Fit or Jazz depending on the market: Fitta was discovered to be Danish and Swedish slang for its female equivalent.

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In the same vein the Mitsubishi Pajero, Buick LaCrosse and Seat Malaga were rebadged Montero, Allure and Gredos respectively because the original names chosen were slang for masturbation in Spanish, Canadian, French, and Greek.

Toyota Australia had their own little miscue when they proposed the name Chicane for a sporty version of the Toyota Aurion. The Japanese head office urged them to choose another name as the word chicane is uncomfortably close to the Japanese word chikan which is the term for a sex-offender who gropes women on public transport.

An example of a historically insensitive name occurred when Toyota planned to bring the Centaur model to Australia and the USA. Headquarters in Toyota City was informed that Centaur was also the name of an allied hospital ship sunk by a Japanese submarine in world war 2. The name was quickly changed to Avalon.

In some cases there are quite prosaic reasons for a namechange: Citroën aficionados with sharp eyes (or tight anoraks) may have noticed while on vacation in Spain or Argentina that the luxury versions of the GS, GSA and CX are named Palas there, with just a single l, instead of Pallas. This is because in the Spanish language the word Pallas is written as Palas in the same way that in the Dutch language the name of the British capital is spelled Londen and not London.

Staying with the double chevron, in the former republic of Yugoslavia CIMOS (Citroën-Tomos) produced the Dyane, GS and GSA under license for a number of years but the Dyane was renamed Diana and the GSA became GA. We have no explanation (as yet) for the Dyane/Diana discrepancy, but it appears that CIMOS chose GA to discriminate between their domestically made model and the French GSA, to make it more recognizable as a genuine Yugoslavian car.

Since CIMOS only started to make the preceding GS after production had already got underway in France they did not change the name, although CIMOS did use different designations.

Then there are the cases of a name already (legally) being taken in certain countries or territories by other car manufacturers. Ford was forced to rename the Mustang to T5 in Germany because the German truck manufacturer Krupp had registered the name for one of their large trucks. After Krupp’s copyright expired in late 1979, Mustangs could be sold as such in Germany.

Volvo ran into trouble with Audi for initially naming its 440/460 successor S4. This happened very late into the process, as a pre-series of cars had already been produced and brochures printed. This scribe was fortunate to know someone who worked at the NedCar Volvo factory in Born who managed to secure a few copies of the S4 brochure before they were destroyed. The solution to the problem was of course to add a zero. S40 it was.

In Sweden, the Citroën Ami 8 had to be rebadged Mi 8 because an automotive supplies company named Ami Motors had registered the rights to the name. Citroën was also prevented from using the Ami name in Spain, as it was a registered name for a brand of biscuits there. Therefore the Ami 8 was simply named 8, and the Ami 6 became the Dynam.

Fiat ran into trouble with Renault in 2003 when they introduced the long awaited successor to original Panda under the name Gingo at the Geneva Motor Show. Apart from the dubious decision to abandon a name with so much brand-capital, it was puzzling that Fiat did not appreciate the (too) close proximity in nomenclature to Twingo. Renault’s management did not wait for the end of the show to express their displeasure, but initially Fiat did not want to hear of it. It was only after serious legal action was threatened that Fiat recanted: it would simply be Panda again. The phrase ‘told you so‘ comes to mind.

*There are also a few rare cases where a numerical nameplate can cause unrest

The author would like to thank Lorentz Osterling, Gunter Busse, Alejandro Beiroa, and Marc Stabèl for their help in providing information for this article.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

20 thoughts on “Nomen Est Omen”

  1. The more luxurious versions of the Citroen BX were named TRD everywhere except for the UK where they didn’t want a turd and called them DTR.
    Finding a name for a car sometimes can be very simple. When CFW Borgward was asked for the name of the new model he said ‘for my sake write Isabella on its boot’.

    1. Hmmmmm. And yet “TRD” is found on the bootlid of hotted up Toyotas. It stands for Toyota Racing Developments. The most fun of these has to be the supercharged V-8 of 5.7-litres and more than 500bhp. No turd that!

  2. Great stuff, Brrrruno.
    Presumably the names get chosen at board level, without anyone having the wit to refer to a “name researcher” who can do the work that you’ve done here.

  3. Good morning Bruno and thank you for another amusing trawl through the treacherous swamp of automotive nomenclature. Not in any way rude (as far as I am aware) but one of my absolute favourites for its sheer silliness is the Mitsubishi Minica Lettuce. Here it is:

    I imagine that the people who chose the name expected it to be pronounced with three syllables as “Let-ooh-shay” and were unaware of the meaning of the word in English. The Minica Lettuce has actually displaced my previous favourite, the Mazda Bongo Friendee:

    1. For years I thought the Bongo Friendee was an urban legend, but to my astonishment I found it’s not: I was overtaken by one on the motorway last February…

    2. Hello Daniel, I investigated why it was called ‘Lettuce’ and this version was sold through a supermarket chain, which had a lifestyle / shopping magazine called the ‘Lettuce Club’. It’s effectively the equivalent of there being something like a Ford Fiesta Good Living, which would be sold through ASDA.

      The Lettuce has two doors on the near / passenger side, to make it safer for children, apparently.

    3. Hi Charles, so it really is ‘lettuce’ after all! Well done on your detective work.

  4. Much to the amusement of the Dutch, Fiat introduced the Croma in the eighties. Croma was and still is a popular cooking fat in the Netherlands. However, it was not important enough, or perhaps too complicated for Fiat to rebadge it.

  5. Very good – I’d never thought much about Citroën’s ‘Pallas’ name, but the fact that they subsequently used ‘Athena’ in its place ought to have given me a clue.

  6. In Australia the Subaru Legacy has always been known as the Liberty. That’s because Legacy has long been the name of a charity which assists the families of service personnel killed or injured in the line of duty.
    Legacy was unwilling to allow a Japanese car company to use the name, presumably due to the appalling treatment of Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese during WW2.

  7. I believe the Hyundai Atoz (in the UK) was renamed from the Atos they got elsewhere, to avoid similarity to the phrase “I don’t give a toss” – although the journalists tittered and made their puns anyway.

    Escort was a term for someone who could be either a friendly or sexual companion,but it did not stop Ford from using it; indeed, they revived the name a few years ago in China, where it probably doesn’t have that meaning. Ka was a good car but a problematic name: pronounce it as British RP would say “car” and it’s confusing (since it sound like “car”!), pronounce it with a short vowel and it sounds a bit like “cack”, a slang term for rubbish or dung…

    1. It’s the other way around. It was supposed to be a wordplay on the expression “From A to Z”, and it’s a brilliant wordplay, playing with the notion of a car as appliance that can take you literally anywhere. Why on earth they named it “Atos” for the global market really boggles my mind.

  8. I recall speculation when the Hyundai Getz came out that it was named after jazz legend Stan Getz, but I imagine that’s too good to be true…

  9. A properly entertaining read.

    It is maybe valuable to chime in with the PSA case
    of the Saxo, which was renamed Chanson for the Japanese market.

    Rumour had it that the Saxo phonetically appeared same as a certain Japanese idiom along the lines of ‘let’s visit the loo together’.

    A bittersweet situation was probably the dilemma on how to name the (now iconic) E82 M-Power model.

    1M can actually sounds suggestive in German.

    It is also somewhat fascinating to this ears, that the Citroen C3 (Citroen C’estTrois?) sounds really rhythmic and playful in its native French, the ensuing rhyme perhaps having a slight role in its commercial brilliance.

    1. Fascinating Peugeotiste: I get the distinct feeling that this is a well that could prove (ahem) bottomless…

  10. The Croatian/Serbian/Bosnian and likely also Slovenian version of the female name Dyane is Diana or Dijana. So Cimos just translated the name.
    As far as i can tell this was not done in some other cases like NSU Prinz produced in Bosnia, which was not renamed Princ.

  11. Thank you Eóin.

    It is indeed a huge topic (not counting the numerous corporate binned naming proposals that had remained obscure).

  12. There is a well-known story about car names from Australia and cross-cultural communication. Years ago (back in the early ’70s or late ’60s perhaps) the Japanese car makers started exporting cars to The Lucky Country. Initially the volumes were modest, although what no-one really noticed or commented on at the time was that they sold everything they landed quickly and easily enough. After a few years several of the Japanese makers co-operated to dispatch to Australia a mission of executives, senior management, senior and junior engineers, marketing analysts and some translators. The purpose of the group was to discover what the Australian market thought of the product and more importantly discover what Australian buyers wanted or would purchase. After they had toured the country for a while they returned to Melbourne and then Sydney to hold a few seminars and meetings with various relevant parties.

    It was during this time that someone sold them the idea they ought to meet up with the Australian motoring press and pump them for information. There are various stories about who promoted this idea and how they were able to overcome the (sound) advice of the local franchise holders not to do it, but let’s leave that for another day. Anyway, a series of lunches and afternoon social events was arranged. Of course these would necessarily entail the provision of copious quantities of chilled alcoholic beverage. Of course. It was Australia after all. And it gets hot there. So, of course. Naturally.

    The functions were hugely successful (if you were an Australian journalist that is). Towards the end of the last function the room was gradually emptying as well lubricated motoring journalists staggered off home in ones and twos. The Japanese hosts continued in their work though, ensuring that every single one was interviewed and asked for opinion. One famous scribe (by-line Romsey Quints) figured he’d down a final roadie and duck out the side exit before he could be intercepted and engaged in conversation. He was well past the three bags beautiful stage already. Alas, he mistimed his departure and having downed his jug, turned from the bar to find his hosts patiently arrayed in a semi-circle around him. You have to imagine the scene. Here you have a slightly disheveled Australian journo already some way down the road to intoxication and a group of serious Japanese technical and managerial professionals in black suits, black ties… One has a notebook in which he scribbles notes. Several have cameras.

    The conversation begins and then a question from one of the senior gentlemen, quickly translated from Japanese into English. “What do you think of our cars?” All eyes fall on the lonely Romsey. He mumbles a few innocuous generalisations. These are translated for the senior member of the group to digest, all the while the scribbler madly writes everything down. Another question. This time the senior man wants to know if there are any problems with the cars, anything the jouno does not like. “No”, says Romney, “Although you should quit with the silly names you give them.” This causes some consternation amongst the group when it is translated. Romney remains trapped and onwards goes the interrogation. The next question addresses what is wrong with the names. Thoughtlessly Romsey replies, “Well mate, they’re too poofy.” The translator is unable to translate this to the satisfaction of the senior man. After a brief conversation in Japanese with his translator he appears to issue an instruction. The translator turns back to Romsey and gently asks, “What is poofy?” Even in the fog of a pleasantly mild intoxication comes the sudden realisation of trouble, yet he figures that the best way out is to front foot it. He explains the term anticipating he’ll be dismissed, kicked out even- not ideal but a departure all the same. Translation is slow and hesitant this time. There are murmurings amongst the group. Nevertheless, the opportunity to escape does not arrive. There comes another question, “You have many poof in Australia?” Without thinking Romsey answers, “Strewth yeah! Country is full of ’em. They’re bloody everywhere mate!” The senior man listens to his translator and back comes his response. “Good! Then we sell many cars here.”

    That story was reported in Wheels magazine in a Romsey Quints article. Some years later, when the success of Japanese cars in the Australian market was all but total, he was to return back to the story and relate it once again, this time with the light of hindsight and in a different context. The moral of the story is a twofer.
    – Nothing in life is free. Even free beer comes with a cost.
    – Assume the other guy understands more about you than you think.

    1. Great story JT, one of the names he was referring to was Nissan Cedric.

      Australian cars have two-letter model codes, and after the EA and EB Falcons, Ford was to proceed until their north Queensland dealers pointed out that it was a local abbreviation for “earth closet” aka toilet. 1993 saw the release of the ED Falcon…

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