holly tree, houx, stechpalme-1030595.jpg

What’s in a Name?

                                                                                                                                                  Apple Tree Cottage


                                                                                                                                                  9 December 1978

We are into winter now, and if December comes, can Christmas be far behind? The people of Berringford are busy with their preparations.  They are looking for large branches of mistletoe, and they are talking about whether there are more or fewer berries on the holly than last year. This is an annual discussion, and everyone has their say, quoting examples of all the holly trees in the neighbourhood. But like discussions about the weather, this never comes to a firm conclusion. The saying goes that if there are a lot of berries, the winter will be hard because the birds are leaving them till later.  If there are few, then our winter will be mild. I have never remembered to link the two events and so prove or disprove this.  Gilbert White would frown on such incompetence!

We have a holly tree in the hedge at the bottom of the paddock, and this provides us with enough boughs to decorate the house each year, though the annual pruning means the tree never grows any bigger.  Most villagers have their own tree, for the holly grows well around here. The branches of berries are put behind every picture and mirror in the house and along the mantelpiece over the log fire. The mistletoe is hung in the centre of the sitting room. The kiss under the mistletoe goes back to Norse legend apparently, and when they visit their friends’ houses, the girls first check who is in the room and after taking this precaution they stand under the mistletoe or not according to fancy.

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, and everyone is buying presents, making those choices that are never easy.  This leads us to marketing and to the current marketing trend of adding a string of letters and numbers to the goods they promote. So, a camera is not a simple Nagawaki or Tokatouri or whatever, but it is a Nagawaki XLC 10, which must, we suppose, be better than its predecessor the XLC 09.  But this XLC 09 never existed.  The previous model was a TS5X, because these things do not progress logically.   In the same way the electric heater may be an ACD 03, the food mixer a BT 051, and the baby’s pushchair is an MC 206X.

There is some method in this naming madness.  The codes have certain associations.  The letter X is always a winner.  X represents the unknown.  It has an idea of mystery as in Mr X, of quality as in ‘Xcel’ or uniqueness as in ‘Xceptional’ but it may also be XPensive.

With cars GT means, or at least meant, ‘Gran Turismo’, a nostalgic phrase long lost in the dust raised by the early Bugattis, Daimlers and Bentleys of the 20s, when a car was a motor and people went out for ‘a run’ just for the pleasure of ‘motoring’.  Now, it seems, almost any car can be called a GT, but the old associations hang on.

The latest gadget, with its impressive code number, normally sells itself, but not out here in Berringford.  In early summer, I remember, on a Monday morning, a salesman visited Uncle Jasper.  I have no idea why he targeted my uncle as a likely buyer.  He must have misread his map, or perhaps his boss had made a mistake with the day’s schedule or was even having a little joke on him, but in drove this young salesman and parked his mini in the yard outside the old farmhouse. He walked briskly up to the front door, knocked, and went in to sell my uncle a music centre with turntable, cassette player and Hi Fi radio all combined. With a clash the late 20th century met a gentle man of all seasons. I saw the salesman go in with his salesman’s smile, and I saw him appear later in the garden, looking rather puzzled and bemused, with a young tomato plant in one hand and a fresh lettuce in the other. Uncle Jasper, with his arm around the young man’s shoulder, walked with him past the border full of lupins and hollyhocks up to the wicket gate, whose hinges still need oiling by the way, and back to his car in the yard, explaining to him how to pinch out the side shoots of the tomato plant so that more growth would be left in the main stem.  The salesman had no hope of selling my uncle the music centre. He didn’t stand a chance.

But buying and selling by code numbers seems to be here to stay. It is part of the jargon of marketing, which is a subject big enough to be left well alone. As far as language is concerned, the flowers of marketing hide some real weeds. Even when selling goods, words and code numbers do matter because our language shows the way we’re thinking or if we are thinking at all. In fact, our language is the way we’re thinking.   

Well, that’s it then, and now I must go.  I can see my uncle making for his holly tree, so I’ll walk down and, despite his protests, help him cut the holly he needs.  His tree is tall now, and he isn’t as steady on a ladder as he used to be. Then I must drive to Bridgestowe to buy the new cassette recorder, the ZYX 500.