Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous


Many stigmas develop which are based on misconceptions.  For example, the vampire bats that attack prey and suck their blood are the FEMALES.  An accurate analogue, then, would be female vampires.

Idiosyncratic naming does not only apply to everyday things.  A misleading onomastic effect is most pronounced when it coming to BRANDING.  Changing the name of companies is often done for image make-overs (that is: for rebranding purposes).  This is for the simple reason that stigmas are often attached to monikers.  This is why the Vatican re-branded the notorious “Inquisition” the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office” in 1908 (and then re-branded it again as the “[Sacred] Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” in 1965).  Yes, the Inquisition STILL EXISTS as a holy office in the Roman Catholic Church.

How we think about something is dictated, in part, by how we LABEL it.  “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” became “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle” (a.k.a. “Yahoo”)…which was later re-named “Oath”.  Consider twenty more illustrations of this in the corporate world:

  • Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) —> British Petroleum (BP)
  • Standard Oil of California (SOCal) —> Chevron
  • Datsun —> Nissan
  • Blackwater —> Xe —> Academi {A}
  • est —> Forum —> Landmark Worldwide
  • Steven A. Cohen Capital Advisors —> Point72 Asset Management
  • Sovereign Bank —> Santander Bank
  • Bell Atlantic —> Verizon
  • Amway —> Quixtar —> Amway (again)
  • Aunt Jemima  —> Pearl Milling Company
  • Phillip-Morris —> Altria
  • Facts —> Time-Life —> Time-Warner —> Spectrum
  • Tribune Publishing —> tronc
  • Clear Channel —> I Heart Media
  • 4chan —> 8chan —> 8kun
  • BackRub —> Google —> Alphabet
  • TheFacebook —> Facebook —> Meta
  • Odeo —> Twitter
  • burbn —> Instagram
  • Il Giornale —> Starbucks

As with any other re-branding, corporate re-branding is about creating an image; because–as with propaganda–marketing is ultimately about manipulating people’s perceptions.  Elucidating Reality has nothing to do with it.  Propaganda is a kind of made-to-order folklore; just as folklore is often leveraged to serve propagandistic purposes.

Image-upgrades are often done to either erase unwanted stigmas or create new images to suit new exigencies. {B}  Such image-engineering occurs in modern PR stunts as much as it does in any other institution’s (strategically designed) interface with the masses.  Whether promoting a consumer product or promulgating an ideology, what matters for stickiness and catchiness is how people PERCEIVE things. {C}

A classic case is the United States’ Advanced Research Projects Agency.  ARPA (1958) was re-named DARPA (1972) then back to ARPA (1993) before going back to DARPA again (1996).  Appending / removing a “D” (for “defense”) was done for purely political reasons–that is: to obfuscate the fact that the program was largely for OFFENSE; in keeping with the Orwellian re-labeling of the War Department.

Meanwhile, acronyms can take on a life of their own.  Few people think of Home Box-Office, Bavarian Motor Works, and International Business Machines by their full names.  This last started as TMC (Tabulating Machine Co.), then became CTR (Computer Tabulating Recording Corp.) before being named IBM; tracking with the emergence of the computer age. {D}

When it comes to HBO, which was originally established so that people could watch simulcast movies in their own home, the primary purpose of the company is now for television SERIES.  Nobody depends on HBO for viewing films any longer; it is now a producer of original programming like the traditional networks (though generating revenue via subscription fees rather than commercials).  Moreover, it is no longer limited to the home.  Hence the acronym no longer makes any sense; though it remains intact for branding purposes.

Sometimes the name is changed for the sake of altering the image even as the institution remains exactly the same.  In an Orwellian re-labeling that would make INGSOC shiver, the U.S. Department of War is now called the Department of Defense…even though it is almost entirely a department of military OFFENSE. {E}

It has never been anything other than a department of war; even after the cessation of the war(s) for which it was established.  Meanwhile, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was re-ramped to be the Clandestine Interventions Agency (CIA), euphemistically re-NAMED the “Central Intelligence Agency”. {F}

The U.S. “Patriot Act” had superficial appeal because it kinda-sorta sounded like “act of patriotism” (even though it was nothing of the sort).  The ruse was “it’s there to protect you”, when—in reality—it was designed to channel public funds into the military-industrial complex.  Corporate welfare in the name of “security”.

The problem is that people tend to fixate on iconography (be it labels or symbols) more than on what is actually represented–at any given time and place–by the moniker / the logo.  Such semiotic swindles are usually effective.  Semiotics is so powerful in part because we typically don’t notice its tremendous power.

The “stigma trumps all else” feature of human psychology is a glitch in how we think.  It is a semiotic blindspot that leads to myriad misconceptions.  Take, for example, the swastika: a hallowed symbol in Hindu / Jain / Buddhist lore (representing good fortune and well-being) for millennia.  Thanks to a 20th-century Austrian madman (who appropriated the symbol for his own deranged movement), its stigma was sullied in the Occident forevermore.  Consequently, few Westerners (outside of Hindus, Jains, and Theravada Buddhists) care to recognize its original meaning.  The negative stigma has—tragically—been deeply ingrained due to the heinous poignance that it still commands.

How we label things influences how we conceptualize what they are.  This can happen with anything–from transnational corporations to culinary delights.  Take, for example, toast that has been fried in egg batter.  Is it French toast or Spanish toast or German toast?  None of the above.  The French call it “pain perdu” [lost bread] while the Spanish call it “torrija” and the Germans call it “Arme Ritter” [poor knights].  Many Indians simply refer to it as “Bombay toast”.  It is actually a ROMAN concoction.  The only people who seem to get it right are the Chinese, who accurately refer to it as “western toast”.  The French call potatoes “apples of the earth”.  And the breakfast treat is no more French than french kissing or french fries.

Pursuant to the elision of genealogy, sublimation occurs.  Once something has been re-defined in the public consciousness, it tends to “lock in”; and its former incarnations are wiped away.  It is important to understand human cognition in terms of (what philologists refer to as) “cognitive semantics” if we are to make sense of how we think about our most hallowed myths.  Such critical scrutiny enables us to reverse-engineer the memeplexes that define how we perceive the world.  The problem is that sanctified dogmatic systems are designed to prevent such critical scrutiny.  In order to tout something as authentic, one is required to obdurately declare: “It’s been that way all along!”

Once we consecrate a meme, it is difficult to come to terms with the image-engineering that led it to where it is now.  We like to think that the way we think of things today is the way they’ve always been.

{A  The idea here was to go from private mercenaries for U.S. government hire to something that sounds more like a training facility for “security”.  Either way, embodied the model for privatizing military functions under noble-sounding pretexts.}

{B  …thereby shedding tainted reputations.  It’s why the Weinstein Company, once a juggernaut in Hollywood, is no longer known under that name.}

{C  This can be as simple as Kentucky Fried Chicken re-christening itself Kitchen Fried Chicken so that it was no longer associated with “the south”; or Pizzeria Uno re-christening itself as Uno Chicago Grill so that was no longer primarily associated with pizza (as if merely a glorified pizza parlor); or Dunkin’ Donuts re-christening itself as Dunkin’ so that it was no longer primarily associated with donuts.  Ireland’s EirCom shortened its name to “Eir”.  For political correctness, Uncle Ben’s rice was re-named “Ben’s Original”.}

{D  Mnemonics is a key element of epidemiology (contagion theory).  Mnemonic acumen is invariably a function of two things: simplicity (ease of recollection) and virality (contagiousness).  These are symbiotic features.  Hence many brands simply adopt acronyms for their public identity.  International Business Machines, Bavarian Motor Works, and Home Box Office weren’t alone in this strategy.  America On-line became “AOL”, Lucky Goldstar became “LG”, and Kentucky Fried Chicken became “KFC”.  For decades, we knew the primary American networks only as ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Few think of MSNBC as Microsoft NBC.  There is a lot in a name–as is demonstrated by the “catchy” euphonic nature of drug names concocted by the Pharmaceutical industry (reminding us that a portmanteau is a catchy way to insert a subliminal message).  This is also demonstrated by the tacky names of tech companies and the snazzy names of car models.}

{E  This actually invokes the sports adage: the best defense is a good offense.  Thus the D.O.D. is more accurately named the D.O.O.  In any case, it is STILL the War Department, as it has almost nothing to do with genuine defense.  This was made clear by the fact that a more genuinely defensive agency was established under the George W. Bush administration: the Department of Homeland Security.  (Fun fact: The KGB is roughly translated as “Department of Homeland Security”.)  If the Pentagon really were a department of “defense”, the DHS would have been redundant.  The fact that the Neocons found the need to establish a new DEFENSIVE department revealed that the D.O.D. was never really about defending the homeland.}

{F  (The NSA now takes care of intelligence-gathering.)  Some of the CIA’s most notorious failures of prognostication: The futility of the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s, the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the repercussions of abetting the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, the attacks by “the Base” in 2001, the dire consequences of invading Iraq in 2003, and the imprudence of abetting the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya in 2011.  Other catastrophes include literally every intervention in Latin America for the last hundred years.}

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