30. January 2019

What´s in a name?

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to stock up on washing powder, so I nipped into my local Penny. a branch of a popular German discount supermarket chain that carries a lot of cheap generic brands. The special offer that week bore an evocative name: „Pallor“. I chuckled. The English noun“pallor“ connotes the deathly pale shade of a corpse’s skin. One translation in German would be „Leichenblässe“! Who was the target group – fashion-conscious zombies?
Not a good association for a washing powder by any stretch of the imagination. Someone had probably just thought it was an alternative to „paleness“, the harmless noun form of „pale“. No big deal, I suppose, as this particular brand is not sold in the U,K or the U.S.A.

While standing in line at the till with a fresher-sounding detergent in my trolley, I began to muse on naming practices in global business. International detergent manufacturers would surely never make a faux-pas on that scale. But, hold on – „Persil“ is an international brand? And doesn’t „Persil“ mean“parsley“ in French? Why name an international brand of detergent after an aromatic culinary herb? Was this a case of a manufacturer taking ‚greenwashing‘ to extremes? It was time to dig deeper – once I had done the laundry, of course!


„Greenwash“ is a compound word modelled on „whitewash“ coined by the environmental activist Jay Westerveld in New York the 1980’s when he realised that corporations were usurping the word „green“ in their publicity claims in order to paint themselves in an environmentally-friendly light.

Persil, the first self-activating laundry detergent in the world, was developed by the Düsseldorf-based company Henkel & Cie on June 6th, 1907 and despite the tempting French interpretation, it has nothing in the least to do with parsley. Rather prosaically, the developers devised the now-famous brand name by yoking together six letters in the names of its original ingredients , namely, sodium perborate and silicate.

To avoid confusion, Henkel doesn’t market Persil in France using this designation. So what have they come up with as an alternative? Well, uhmm, they have opted for the name of an animal, naming it „Le Chat“ – The Cat? Mmm – that’s logical, n’est-ce pas?

Well, yes, in a way it is, once you know the whole story which started in Marseille, a town which, for centuries has been famous for its Savons de Marseille, unscented cubic laundry bars of green and white soap, made from olive and pure vegetable oils. One of the most famous brands was Le Chat and it featured a cute red cat as a trademark. Through various business ventures, Henkel acquired the rights to the name.

But the story is not over yet. Why name a soap bar after a small red feline? It certainly has better associations than „Pallor“ and might even evoke the softness and fluffiness of newly-laundered clothes, but the connection is tenuous at best.

I searched hard and came across a plausible explanation. Savon de Marseilles soap bars were coveted products that were costly to produce and subject to severe manufacturing regulations. Soon other fly-by-night producers sought to imitate the original. Countless counterfeit soap products went into circulation and flooded the market. One traditional manufacturer wished to make his customers wary of these fakes. He wanted them to behave much like sly cats lying in wait for their prey – the hapless mice, or in this case the counterfeit soap bars. This is how the trademark, Le Chat was born, as a symbol for the watchful consumer who would not be fooled by cheap copy-cats. Oops – maybe I should go for a brand name next time I buy detergent?

© Carole Eilertson


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