“Lost in Translation: The Genius and Stupidity of Corporate America Are on Display When Companies Rebrand for New Countries”

This pitch letter is part of The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database, which contains 289 successful pitches to a wide range of publications. To share your own successful pitch, please fill out this form.

The Story

“Lost in Translation: The genius and stupidity of corporate America are on display when companies rebrand for new countries”
by Jane C. Hu
Quartz, October 23, 2016

The Pitch

Hi Elijah,

A couple ideas I’ve been thinking about:


Marketing global products? Linguistics can help.

In English, borrowed words like fjord, cappuccino, and champagne are commonplace. But with increasing contact between cultures, a new type of borrowing has emerged, which linguists call phono-semantic matching (PSM). One language will borrow words from another language by not only borrowing the sounds, but also altering the words slightly to preserve a similar meaning.

This is especially common in Chinese; for instance, the borrowed word for the English word hacker is “heike,” which not only sounds like English, but uses characters that translates roughly to “dark (or evil) visitor.” Advertisers, in particular, often use PSM to preserve global brand recognition and engender “good feelings” about a product by choosing a name that highlights positive aspects of a company or product (e.g. British chain Harrod’s is haoruoda in China, which translates roughly to “very grand”). For this piece, I’d talk with linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, the resident world expert on this phenomenon, about how this linguistic phenomenon is being used in business.

Happy to elaborate on or answer questions about any of these ideas. My usual beats are the brain sciences, language, animal research, and the culture of academia, but I’m game for anything science-related and would love to hear about any stories you’ve been looking to assign, or areas you’ve been looking to fill in Quartz’s coverage.



Skip to content