Monday, May 14, 2007

Burton's Babylonic Blunder

We will cleanse Russia of all non-Russians! This was the message relayed in print on British Burton menswear store's new T-shirt, The Guardian reports. Had it not been for an attentive language student, Britons in the thousands might have gone around proclaiming Russian racist propaganda. Instead, Burton realised the blunder and quickly withdrew the shirts.

Language difficulties have caused a lot of misunderstandings throughout human history. The ancient Greek called people of foreign tongue barbarians, as they thought other languages sounded as a constant bar-bar. In biblical mythology, God prevents man from building the tower of Babel by introducing a variety of tongues among the hubristic constructors. Hence, the term Babylonic, to signify language confusion.

That language difficulties occasionally cause misunderstandings even today is far from uncommon. Usually, however, mistakes are rather harmless. This time, though, a major clothes retailer unknowingly distributed a grossly racist product. The grey Burton T-shirt in question centred the Russian double eagle with Orthodox cross surrounded by the text "Очистим Русь от всех нерусских!" (We will cleanse Russia from all non-Russians!). Wearing a T-shirt like this would be illegal in Russia and could possibly lead to police arrest. Let's but hope no poor ignorant British tourist in Moscow or St. Petersburg has ended up in such a predicament.

Though, as a Swede, one should perhaps not be so cocky about inappropriate brand or product names. Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA is infamous for its stupid naming policy. Would anyone buy a desk called "Jerker", a workbench called "Fartfull", or a chair called "Beslut"? Actually, people do and IKEA somehow gets away with it as part of their clean an innocent Scandinavian image. However, this is not something Burton did with its racist T-shirt, and rightly so. Hopefully, Burton will now have the sense to hire a language expert for future deliveries.


Megan Case said...

I think IKEA's product naming policy is the opposite situation, though. The company knows what the words mean in the original, but the consumers don't. The fact that these Swedish words look funny to some people is part of IKEA's charm.

This t-shirt situation happens quite frequently, actually - where a company uses a language it doesn't have a clue about on its products because it seems cool or mysterious, often with hilarious or disastrous results. One needs only look at to see this.

In any case, your point is a good one. If you don't want to make a fool of yourself in a globalized world, get someone who knows the language to look at your product before you start selling it, and there's really no excuse for not doing so. I'm sure there are plenty of Russian speakers in the UK who would be happy to design some cool, mysterious, and inoffensive t-shirts for Burton.

John said...

Yeah, sometimes companies will give their products awkward names just to draw attention to them.

Remember the slogan: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" for vacuum cleaners?

I.S. said...

Dear Vilhelm

These IKEA texts are just funny but that T-shirt is just scary. Unlike in the original story in the Guardian, I don't think anybody would be arrested in Russia wearing that shirt, as the Nashi are probably already wearing shirts like that - well, hopefully NOT.

Could you please send me e-mail ( so I could get your e-mail address. I'd like to send you information about a seminar we are to organise in Finland soon.

All best,

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Megan,

I hope this racist scandal really hurts for Burton, so that they learn their lesson for the future. Hopefully, they will also employ someone to check foreign language text on their products.

As for IKEA, I feel somewhat as a dork as a Swede, seeing how people worldwide see IKEA as representative of Sweden. Of course, it might be intentional, but still... I will certainly take a closer look at, which I expect to be quite funny.



Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear John,

"Nothing sucks as an Elextrolux" was a new one for me. Thanks for your contribution! It made me smile.



Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear IStori,

That is just the scarry thing - not being arrested for wearing such slogans in Russia. Yes, I agree with you that today, nobody would probably be arrested for this, regardless of what the law states.