Market Correctness

Names have power, despite their intangible nature. Romeo and Juliet’s respective surnames were enough to doom their love in Shakespeare’s eponymous work. Naturally, one might hope that a name should not act as a burden, and ought to be changed if a more equitable title can be found. But there is a danger to changing names; as American (and Western society in general) becomes increasingly euphemistic, a whole host of terms and concepts are made meaningless. George Orwell is often overcited in critiques of language, but his rather underused essay “Politics and the English Language” has much to offer to those interested.

In this essay, Orwell makes the contention that the English language—and thus the very ideas of people who communicate in that language—is under threat. He states:

"...the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes...But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely...It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Of course, the argument that he is making in a academic and polemical manner here is the same that would later pervade his most famous novel, 1984. Because ideas must be transmitted through a language, alterations to that language may transform or limit certain ideas in the public sphere and eventually in people's minds. Specifically for the purposes of this post, I will recite Orwell's fifth rule provided in the essay: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." Let's see if we have since learned from Orwell's example...

In the cold waters of the south seas along the Southern Cone of South America lived a humble fish called the Patagonian toothfish. Lightly fished for local consumption, and with international fisheries only interested in harvesting small quantities to be ground up into cat food, the toothfish persevered as it had for millennia. Then, in the 1990s, businessmen in the United States rebranded the fish “Chilean Sea Bass,” which immediately became a trendy favorite at seafood restaurants. Stocks of the slow-growing fish have since been devastated by overfishing, which has also had the side-effect of killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds a year. By merely having its name changed, this species has gone from obscurity to in-demand commodity toward becoming an endangered species.

The toothfish is not the only species that has been renamed for marketing purposes. Dolphin-fish, presumably to remove any association with the beloved mammal of the same name, has become “mahi-mahi.” Yet the choice of the fish’s Hawaiian language name seems in total a cynical one made in order to produce as exotic- and desirable-sounding a name as possible; the Spanish language name already occasionally in use, “dorado,” was thus passed over for mahi-mahi. It should be noted that not all name-changes are cynical marketing ploys—for example, the renaming of jewfish to goliath grouper—and these can be positive changes. Furthermore, species are often reclassified once research reveals new taxonomic connections. However, superficial name changes made for marketing purposes seem on the rise and increasingly accepted without a word of protest from the general public.

But renamed fish are only a small part of a much wider trend. Take one of the most consumed cooking oils in North America, canola oil. “Canola,” however, is not the name of any plant, as one might assume. The etymology of the name, bizarrely enough, is the term "Canadian oil, low acid"[!]. The seemingly Soviet acronym was adopted because the traditional name of the plant from which canola was derived is "rapeseed." Thus, a plant variety in the United States has essentially disappeared from the public mind—replaced with a bland acronym-contraction—for the reason that a product derived from a plant with the word "rape" in its name is not sufficiently marketable to consumers.

The situation becomes even more absurd in the realm of pharmaceuticals. In the past, names of drugs were often related chemically or biologically to their source or active ingredient (e.g. Penicillin, from the Penicillium fungus, or for example the antihistamines I frequently take: Chlortrimeton, from chlorphenamine maleate or Sudafed, from pseudoephedrine). But now euphemism is the rule of the day: an aminoketone called buproprion becomes the trade drug "Wellbutrin," ibandronate sodium becomes "Bonviva." These names have no relation to their chemical bases and merely sound pleasant to the ear—Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant, makes you "well" and Bonviva, meant to prevent osteoperosis, gives you a "good life." Even if the FDA eventually rejected the trade name "Bonviva," GlaxoSmithKline settled for the similarly meaningless and euphemistic "Boniva."

In the United States, political hay is frequently made over "political correctness." Despite the shrill complaints of right-wing culture warriors, many terms that have changed have done so for the purposes of creating a more neutral, inclusive, and (generally speaking) accurate terminology (e.g. [American] Indian→Native American, [mentally] retarded→mentally challenged/disabled). Conversely, the euphemistic and arbitrary language described in this post exists for no reason other than profit. Reviewing the evidence here, the more muddled and removed from reality a concept is, the more marketable it becomes. My objection to this is not merely its excessive effigeousness, but that these made-up words can have very real and rather negative consequences. Speaking as the compiler of the Fictionary and its amusing/somewhat useful slang, I can say that the public sphere deserves better than this unclear and insincere language. I'm with Orwell, let's avoid such language that leads us to have foolish thoughts. And one of the most serious sources of this is not political correctness, but what I shall henceforth term "market correctness." And if that sounds a bit forced and unnatural, well, let's just call it "made-up nonsense."


  1. I agree with your conclusions on the breakdown of the English language. I also agree that market correctness is a serious problem. However I do not believe that market correctness is as insidious as other problems with our modern language. Market correctness is essentially branding or re-branding which is as old as the marketplace. The merchants of the tooth fish were planning on harvesting them, whether it is as a fish stick, some exotic sea bass, or as (shiver) a McDonald's chicken nugget. The branding only has allowed them to use this resource. What concerns me is man's ignorance of the language they speak. This is more damning in the long run than market correctness. Thanks for the post and the food for thought. I've bee reading Orwell lately (Animal Farm) and enjoyed the tie in.
    Nathan N.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nathan! I agree that this is only one expression of a wider and overarching issue. I chose to write on "market correctness" due to the relative lack of attention it receives (compared with the completely disproportionate amount political correctness gets in the media), but there is certainly much more that can be said.

    Orwell is a superb source on this subject; if I were ever to teach in the future, I would definitely use "Politics and the English Language" as a guide. I hope all is well with you.