The Case of the Neutered Airport
In keeping with the penchant for English advertising and branding in Switzerland over the past decades, companies of all kinds have been anglicising their names. Given that in their enthusiasm they forget to check these names for correctness or even coherence, we get odd or unintentionally humorous usage such as the vaguely rude Party2Come caterers, the InterBrain software company and my personal favourite, the engineering firm Swissboring, which neatly captures Switzerland's international image.
A few years back, Zurich’s Tagesanzeiger newspaper published a cartoon by Felix Schaad that exemplified this phenomenon beautifully. I find myself having to describe the cartoon for you, because after keeping it in a prominent place for years, I recently decided to put it away for safekeeping. I can’t find it anymore, of course. The cartoon shows two branding specialists presenting to a business formerly called “Bullardi & Schifferle”. They are very proud to have created a new company name that is “in English and even has an ‘X’ in it”. The name they suggest is “Bullshix”.
Obviously, what accompanies the trend towards anglicizing is the failure of decision-makers to actually ask a native English speaker whether the nifty new name makes some kind of sense, or at least doesn’t sound all too ridiculous. There are currently tens of thousands of us in this country with the number growing every day, so it’s not like this would be hard to do.
Nowhere has the need for guidance been more apparent than at Zurich’s international airport. Never mind the noise issue that’s made the headlines for over 20 years, it’s the frequent name changes that have amused many for decades. Zurich’s airport used to be called Kloten, for the town it’s located in. When that got too banal, a dash of worldliness was called for and the name was changed to Zurich International Airport. Which makes sense and sounds global and much bigger than it is, kind of like Zurich itself. The airport then went through intense expansion, adding docks, seven-day shopping, a new hotel. Then, instead of adhering to the very wise words of American philosopher and Carter Administration scandal provider Bert Lance, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, in 2000 someone surfed a rare brainwave and decided to hire a marketing company to do just that. The winning agency was handed about CHF 200,000 for coming up with a name that is singularly brilliant in its unoriginality: Unique Zurich Airport.
Now, what’s the first thing you learn in marketing? Never use adjectives like unique, because as soon as you do, the word becomes meaningless. Of course Zurich Airport is unique. Where would you put another one? Perhaps somewhere in the Canadian Province of Ontario, which has cloned international cities such as London, Paris, Verona, Brussels, Adelaide, Melbourne, and even Waterloo. It gets worse when you find out, from an employee of said agency (who and which shall remain nameless), that the idea was to establish a company which would run airports all over the world under the Unique brand – an endeavour that would soon result in contracts with airports in South and Latin America, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Unique indeed.
But that’s not all. Due to contrasts in the stressing of syllables in German vs. English speech, Swiss German speakers tend to pronounce “unique” to sound like “eunuch”. Which always made me smile when I heard it said that way over the public address system at the airport itself.
When you consider that the name Kloten used to leave Dutch passengers smirking because it sounds very much like their common word for testicles, on some level the name change may actually have made sense. In reinventing its image and expanding the compound itself, the airport’s administrators turned it from a feisty cluster of efficient little buildings with a long Bye-Bye Bar, into a bland, standardised, globalised point of connection, with a glass and steel hotel, a food court and the same brand name shops as in airports all over the world – in other words, from kloten to a eunuch. At least the Bye-Bye Bar is still there.
It took them almost ten years to figure it out, but finally in 2009 the board of Unique (Flughafen Zürich AG) decided remove “Unique” from their name and we now have a Flughafen Zürich or in English, quite simply, Zurich Airport.