Show and tell: WordSafety

A tool for preventing branding fails

We’ve all read the scary stories of automotive companies giving their cars names that don’t translate well for international markets – names with unintended meanings in other languages. The internet is full of lists of such marketing translation fails and no one wants to be featured in one. (Here’s a nice example.)

WordSafety is a searchable database of 3,000 words along with phonetic variations from 19 languages (Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Persian (Farsi), Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish). The WordSafety makers say that these languages cover about 3.8 billion native speakers worldwide and that’s a pretty good number to start with.

How WordSafety works

It’s nothing fancy. Just a one-page website where you can enter whichever name you’re considering and have it checked for unwanted meanings.

For some fun, you can look at the warnings for “translation” and “lingua,” both of which are often found in translation-related business names.

Some German examples

A famous story is how Clairol launched their curling iron called Mist Stick in Germany without checking whether the name was a good fit. As the company soon noticed, “Mist” means “manure” in German and nobody wants that near their hair. The WordSafety results look like this: 2015-11-09 20-55-28 Mist

And that’s all you need to know!

Another story often whispered around German campfires is how cosmetics brand Puffs launched its tissues in Germany under that same name – oblivious to the fact that German “Puff” means “brothel. What does WordSafety have to say about that? 2015-11-09 21-03-53 Puffs

Ok then! The first warning shows that WordSafety seems to cast a rather wide net for possibly embarrassing pronunciations. Since users don’t indicate the source language of the term they are checking, it makes sense to be generous with possible pronunciations.

Who might need it

Not everyone will go global with every single brand. I also don’t think that it makes sense to travel around the world and seek out brands or words that don’t translate into English. If a brand is only targeting the domestic market, it doesn’t matter what the brand sounds like to speakers of other languages.

WordSafety’s main strength is that it reminds us that what works in our chosen language might not have the same effect in a different language. That in itself is a valuable insight. Translators considering a brand name would ideally be aware of what their chosen brand sounds like in both their source and target language markets. It never hurts to check, though.

How you can contribute

3,000 words aren’t yet enough to provide total safety from branding mishaps. WordSafety relies on crowdsourcing to extend its database. You can add your favorite swear word to the site and make branding a little bit safer for everyone else. And you can tell others about this tool. Maybe they’ll want to add some off-color terms from their native language. The more, the merrier.

What do you think?

Footer image for the Show and tell series on Sprachrausch blog

Image source: Nicola Perantoni at Unsplash, Canva

There are 3 comments on this post

  1. Patricia

    This is great Else. I’m sure it helps a lot of people make sure they don’t mess it up. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Gerd Meissner

    “If a brand is only tar­get­ing the domes­tic mar­ket, it doesn’t mat­ter what the brand sounds like to speak­ers of other languages.”

    I agree, Else – to a certain point. Am I expecting too much from Denglish-prone brands with their own “club” section ?


    1. Else Gellinek

      That’s a really good point, Gerd! I was mainly thinking of brands using their native language for their domestic market. We’ve all seen these (slightly arrogant) websites where English-speaking tourists post pictures of restaurants or stores with names that are unintentionally funny in English, but aren’t actually English.

      However, if people want to use English to target their non-English-speaking domestic markets, then I’ll definitely hold them to a higher standard.


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