What's In A Name?

(26 November 2009)

My lawyer, among other cautionary folk, has had reason to tell me several times over the past few years that political correctness is now the way to go, and it is no longer acceptable to make jokes about the French. This has deprived me of up to a third of my long-established conversational gambits, but I suppose I will have to put up with it. Still, I did raise a quiet smile when I heard about the latest issue about which the fro- . . . beg pardon, the fine folk of France have got their undergarments in a twist.

You may be aware that Renault has lately decided to put a number of electric cars and vans into production, and that one of these is called Zoe. The Zoe is, I'm told, due to go on sale in 2012, which leaves about two years for a fellow called by Sebastien Mortreus and the like-minded individuals who have signed his petition to go on complaining about the choice of name.

Zoe, you see, is the 17th most popular girl's name in France. So I'm told, anyway. I am a busy man and I can't possibly spare the time to do the necessary counting. If someone tells me that only 16 other girl's names exceed Zoe in popularity, I'm prepared to go with it. The point is that French parents like to call their daughters Zoe, and some of them are protesting that such a beautiful moniker ought not to be seen on the back of a battery-powered Renault (or, I assume, any other wheeled vehicle).

Why not? I can't really see, though I'm told that the Mortreus petition describes the affair as a "scandal". Renault, however, remains unmoved, and has reacted in a more heated fashion than simply to give the Gallic shrug which always seems to follow any objection I make to a French person. Renault's point is that the name has the sort of connotations that make marketing people's lives worthwhile, including "values of femininity" - which is fair enough, though I suppose you would get the same effect by calling a car Charlene or Agnes.

A further defence from Renault is that the word Zoe is also being used as a three-letter substitute for "zero emissions", which is what the car will produce (though the various power stations where the electricity is to be generated will not). A reasonable claim, I suppose, to which I would only add that by a pleasing coincidence I recently became godfather to a small person called Zoe, and her own emissions - both of noise and of exhaust particles - are very far from zero.

What Renault does not seem to have said, though I'm going to, is that there have been other instances of cars and people sharing titles, none of which has led to anything like l'affaire Zoe. The most famous is of course Mercedes, which was named more than a century ago after the daughter of the Daimler distributor in Nice. Saab is a not uncommon surname in the Middle East, though the connection is fortuitous, since the car name is derived from that of the Swedish Aeroplane Company.

And then there's Kia. You may have heard about this. Earlier this month, a baby girl left her mother's womb and found herself in the interior of her grandmother's Kia Carens. It would have been subtly clever to name her Karen, but her parents went one step further in their celebrations and named her Kia instead. Kia (the company, not the girl - this is becoming too confusing) responded by giving them a new Carens for nothing. The parents might then have tried to sue Kia for using their daughter's name to sell cars, but they did not, because they are not French.

(Rufus's Lawyer: Careful, now.)

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