Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shakespeare was wrong

      What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet…

That's what you think, Will. Those crazy Elizabethans knew nothing of marketing. The name's the thing, not the play. Poor Shakespeare had to muddle through with no marketing department, no focus groups. Nobody to tell him that "Hamlet" was a better name for a fast-food breakfast item than a protagonist—and, good fellow, that ending is such a downer.

We are more fortunate. If you want to know who we are as a people, look at ads. Advertising and marketing offer the truest mirror we could gaze in. It tells us what are the fairest dreams of our imagining.

So it is interesting to see trends in ads. One that currently puzzles me is teeth-whitening procedures. There are any number of methods to get the pearly-whites whiter (and, incidentally, less pearly, since pearls are not bright white). It is not surprising that we want whiter teeth (although sometimes the unnatural whiteness can be startling).

What is fascinating is that the advertising for these methods almost never mentions teeth. Instead, they brightly talk about whitening your smile. Once I began to pay attention I have seen/heard lots of pitches for whitening products, but not one used the T word.

Is there something wrong with the word “teeth”? When did we decide we needed a euphemism for them? I don't quite get it. It reminds me of the Victorian bluenoses who insisted on referring to "limbs" because they could not bring themselves to say "legs."

The capper came in an e-mail from WebMD, with the topic "How Diabetes Affects Your Smile." Since the effects were to the gums, it seems the euphemism is spreading. Where will it end? As Will Shakespeare pointed out (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII) we all end "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing."


  1. In about 1960 S.I. Hayakawa observed that modern advertising copy subsumed poetry. General Semantics was a fun college course.

  2. That does sound like a fun course. I wish I had taken something along those lines. (I think that removes all doubt—were there any—about my geekiness!)