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[Kim Seong-kon] Funny car names and awkward titles

Cultural differences often inspire harmless laughter among individuals. For example, rumors say that the Americans’ favorite car, the Chevy Nova, did not sell in South America because Nova literally means ‘no go’ or ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish. When GM executives changed the car’s name to the Chevy Caribe, sales increased considerably. This funny anecdote well illustrates the fact that you should think twice about a product’s name before introducing it to a foreign market. 

Kia Motors faced a similar predicament when the automobile company began exporting its cars to the United States. Since KIA in English stands for “killed in action,” many Americans initially thought Kia signs advertised some sort of agency for army veterans who were killed in action. How could Americans possibly know that Kia means “Rising Asia” in Korean?

Since the Kia K-series cars such as the K5 and K7 are highly successful, Kia Motors has reportedly decided to rename its luxury car Opirus to the “K9.” The problem is that in English, K9 (pronounced the same as “canine”) means “dog.” If you drive a car with the model name K9 attached to the rear end of your car, people may make fun of you for riding around in a “dog.”

Years ago, when Kia began exporting its compact car “Pride” to the United States through Ford Motors, it changed the name to “Festiva,” presumably because the term “pride” has negative connotations in Christianity. As we all know, it was “pride” that made Lucifer the fallen angel and any car with negative Biblical connotations won’t sell in countries such as the U.S.

The Internet provides a host of funny Japanese car names such as the Nissan “Moco,” which means “booger” in Spanish, the Mazda “LaPuta,” which means “the prostitute” in Spanish, and the Mitsubishi “Pejero,” which means “masturbator” in Spanish. They say that Honda “Fitta” embarrassingly means “female sexual organ” in Swedish and Norwegian. American and German cars are no exception: the Buick “LaCrosse” sounds like the slang for “masturbation” in French. The Opel “Ascona” means “female sexual organ” in Northern Spain as well as some areas of Portugal.

Foreigners point out that the name of a Korean luxury car, the “Chairman,” sounds quite awkward too. Suppose the car bore the Korean word for chairman, “Hoejang,” on its back end. It would surely look ridiculous. A foreign newspaper once pointed out that the car name “Chairman” reveals Koreans’ aspiration to become chairmen of big business corporations. In the United States, I once saw a license plate which said, “Poet John Smith.” Presumably the owner of the car was a self-proclaimed poet, and yet the plate seemed awkward and even pompous. Wine bottles produced in Napa, California, can bear such names as “Poet,” but an automobile license plate bearing the word “Poet” may seem gauche. Likewise, “Chairman” seems much too pompous, and even childish, for the name of a car.

Hyundai Motors, too, used to have a problem. In the past, Hyundai simply named its popular Sonata models the Sonata, the Sonata 2, and the Sonata 3, according to the year of manufacture. When Hyundai exported the car to the American market, it simply affixed the name “Sonata” to all of its Sonata models, regardless of its production date. Probably Hyundai was aware of the issue that if you own a Sonata, you may feel inferior to someone who owns the Sonata 2 or 3.

Not only the names of cars, but also the titles of people reflect cultural differences and misunderstandings. For example, Korean students customarily call their professors “teacher,” rather than “professor.” Some professors, who value the traditional mentor-disciple relationship, prefer to be called by the title, “teacher.” The issue is that quite a few students put their professor’s name as “Teacher Kim” on their term paper.

Another problem is that in a class where English is the language of instruction and discussion, Korean students frequently call their professor, “Teacher.” Whenever my students at SNU call me “Teacher!” in English, I feel like an elementary school teacher. In English-speaking countries, even elementary or high school teachers are addressed as Mr. Kim, Mrs. Park, or Miss Lee, but seldom as “teacher.” American or British college students call their professors, Professor Brown or Dr. Smith, with due respect. In Korea, however, college students frequently address their professors as “Teacher.”

Korean also differs from English in that the title “teacher” is used for anyone we encounter on the street. For example, we may ask a passerby on the street: “Excuse me, Seonsaeng-nim (teacher). Would you tell me how to get to City Hall?” Koreans even call their physician, “Doctor-teacher.” Notwithstanding the good connotations in the title, “teacher,” sometimes it is not appropriate to address a college professor as “Teacher Kim” or “Teacher Park.”

Foreign names and titles often sound funny, get lost in translation and cause cultural misunderstandings. We should exercise extreme caution when naming our products for introduction to the rest of the world, and when choosing a title for someone.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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