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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-04-1)

A small item in the newspaper caught my eye recently. It said simply that the names “Phaeton” and “Tuareg” had been rejected as possible names for motor car models in the United States on the grounds that nobody would know what the names meant.

I didn’t know that this was a requirement. After all, the VW Golf was sold for years with a golf-ball-shaped knob on the gearshift lever, when the name probably related to the Gulf Stream, not to golf at all. The same company’s Passat models were named for the “passatwind” – a trade wind.

It’s sad about “Phaeton”, though. When Latin and Greek were widely taught, the name was quite familiar. Spelt slightly differently (Phaethon), the name usually referred to the son of Helios, the Sun-god. Phaethon came to his father one day and asked if he could drive the chariot of the sun for a day. (“Just once, dad? Please, dad?”) In the end Helios gave way, and the boy set off.

To no-one’s surprise, he was not strong enough to control the horses, which veered wildly off their usual track and “came so near the earth, as almost to set it on fire.” Zeus, the greatest of the gods, saw what was going on and, in order to save mankind, killed Phaethon with a flash of lightning. After that, things returned to normal.

But the name surfaced again in 18th Century England, when it meant a light four-wheeled open carriage, usually pulled by two horses and with one or two seats. It was probably the kind of sporty vehicle that young men aspired to, just the sort of association today’s car-maker had in mind.

As for “Tuareg” – well, I don’t know. I’m sure I learned about them when I was about seven years old, and I haven’t forgotten them – a nomadic race of the Sahara Desert. What were today’s little Americans learning about at that age? Gigabytes?

But one has to be careful with names for the American market. I am told that when the play The Madness of George III was made into a film, it had to be called The Madness of King George for American consumption. The original title might have been mistaken for Part 3 of a series, and if the potential ticket-buyer thought he had missed the first two there would be no point in seeing the third.

Similarly, J K Rowling’s adventure story Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is known in the United States as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, presumably because nobody between Mexico and Canada knows what a philosopher is. A pity, that, because the term “philosopher’s stone” has a meaning of its own, and “sorcerer’s stone” means nothing.

I must admit to a feeling of vague disquiet about mass ignorance in the world’s last remaining superpower, so I was pleased to see a snippet on TV about a motor-show – Geneva, perhaps? – where one of the new models on display proudly bore the name “Phaeton”. May it become a classic.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online




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