Joke Shop-Names

Why does an ordinary suburban laundry call itself Soap Opera? Why does an ordinary modern suburban hairdressers call itself Snip Joint? What motivates these jokey re-namings, and does it reflect a shift in (suburban) society’s attitude to language, to laundries and hairdressers, to labelling and business names especially, or to the giving and using of goods and services?

A paper first given at the Poetics and Linguistics Association meeting, Goldsmiths College, London. 29 June-2 July 2000

My topic is shop names that involve a joke, a pun, a play on meanings, an exaggeration, an irony, or other figure. My interest developed from noticing the name of a high-street premises, close to my university, which contains coin-operated washing- and drying-machines: in short, a launderette. Now this particular launderette is situated in the neighborhood of Birmingham known as Selly Oak. The OED tells us that selly is an archaic term meaning strange, marvellous or wonderful. But my daughter tells me a darker and more poignant narrative, which she learnt in school so it must be right: she tells me that Selly Oak was named for a woman by the name of Sally who was taken and hanged for a witch, from an oak tree, in medieval times. Anyway, whatever the history, it probably suffices to say that there is a neighborhood called Selly Oak and it has on one corner a launderette. And the launderette’s name? The Selly Soak.

In the same neighborhood is a local café, or greasy spoon, as we metonymically designate them, or ‘caif’ as I would call it (this relexicalization or rephonologicalization of perceptibly either high-status or low-status entities and roles stems, I suspect, from the same impulse that gives us the insider-French known as Verlan). This café offers the usual pies, sausages, chips, and beans. And it bears the soubriquet of The Selly Sausage.

Or consider a similar eatery spotted on the High Street of Bordesley Green: The Bellybuster Café. Then there is the coin-operated laundry in Didsbury, Manchester, cleverly called Soap Opera. Back in Selly Oak, there is an off-licence uninspiredly called The Liquor Locker; but with a full-front pull-down shutter decorated with an enormous graffiti-style spray painting of three sexy young women, and under these lovely ladies runs the joke caption Sisters of Murphy’s. (Murphy’s is the name of a popular Irish beer; the caption is echoic and a near-rhyme with Sisters of Mercy, a well-known order of Catholic [often Irish] nuns, who would not normally trigger the slightest association–the reverse, in fact–with either sexy young women or beer-drinking.)

Nearby is another café, called Café Face. What is this–an anagram, a near-palindrome, or are we crossing a French-Italian border, with the second word pronounced face? My Italian informant tells me no, although double cc, as in facce, would denote faces. The other day I asked the proprietor, who divulged he himself bore a Birmingham ph d, in materials engineering from Aston University, before seeking his fortune in the catering business. He explained that he himself came up with the name, chiefly as an anagram of the letters in CAFé, and partly rationalized after the event by pointing to the circle around the slogan, as face-like. He also mentioned that he had discarded other possible neames such as East-West Café… Moving on from Café Face we reach the High-Street sauna, called, what do you think? Manyana. Then over in Harborne where I live there’s the shop selling clothes for the much-stigmatized taller or larger woman, who cannot fit into a size 8 dress, called Woman at Large. Just recently a new tanning salon has opened in Harborne under the excellent name of Tanfastic.

When your Old English Sheepdog’s split ends are getting to be just too unflattering you can take him down to the Shaggy Dog pet-grooming centre. For your own coiffure, if you live on the Hagley Road side of Birmingham, you can choose from among Snip Joint; Hair ‘Em Scare ‘Em; Combers; and Headmasters.

Some things I am going to assert or assume: one is that local high-street cafes and launderettes have not always had such playful titles, and that in a former age the typical titles of such establishments would be Joe’s Café, The Silver Lounge, The Pantiles Launderette and other. So there’s something new here. It may be part of a much larger picture, which we might grandly connect to rampant reflexivity, irony, and contingency in late modernity. And where we formerly flew on (I think the preposition was) a British Overseas Airways Corporation aeroplane; now we fly not even with BA or KLM–for we have gone through our acronymic phase and are coming back to words. Instead we travel with Go (or is it Go!?) or Buzz. When I was a child and we needed a tin of paint or a box of screws I was despatched to the Pickford Lane Ironmongers and Hardware Stores, a magical cluttered place, as tiny as its proprietor; now we go to a kind of hypermarket comprehensively entitled Do It All, or we get to Homebase, thereby, as it were, batting 1.0 our entire lives without even realizing it. And so on. But I want to look at the smaller picture, rather than the big one of late modernity, today.

It is hard to see how all these can constitute a well-defined or unified category, and it is perhaps laughable in turn even to consider that they might be such. But is there any degree of ‘family resemblance’ grouping among these playful names? Arguably there are patterns and trends here, to be teased out. To begin with, what kinds of commercial enterprise are likely to receive the joke-title treatment? It seems to be launderettes and dry-cleaners, hairdressers (of the run-of-the-mill variety, not haute coiffure), cafes, drain-de-clogging services, novelty and joke shops themselves…

And what suppliers of goods and services do not seem to tolerate the joke-name treatment? Undertakers, of course; banks, insurance agencies, travel agencies, medical practitioners, charity shops. (But compare the slogan of the funeral directors in the fictional Springfield of the TV cartoon show, The Simpsons, where outrageous mockery is licensed: ‘We put the fun in funerals!’).

Of course some names are remarkable for other reasons that give us pause, such as the south Birmingham House Removals company that trades and advertises under the name, blazoned across all their trucks, of Chris Breeze and Wife.

The kinds of commercial, high-street service providers that can involve (or ‘insert’) humour into their trading name will be ones where the element of risk to the individual (including risk in the Giddens/Beck sense) is remote or slight. So, I would suggest, these providers are not operating in areas of high seriousness involving significant amounts of money, or of face (such as buying a house, or burying a loved one, to give extreme examples). Rather, these are non-critical and often routine or recurrently-used services. They are services that are relatively unproblematic or ‘uninterpretive’: that is, the service is understood to be basically performable in just one way, without need for much deliberation or interpretive adaptation to the particular needs of the customer, on the part of the supplier. It is understood or assumed by the customer using one of these services that there is essentially just one way to unplug a blocked rain, to dry-clean and press a suit, or to prepare the all-day breakfast of egg, sausage and chips. (These businesses are thus dull to a point far beyond the ordinariness of the corner shop or the newsagents, where newspaper revelations innovate at least once a day, and new and seasonal items ring the changes in the display windows and shelves.)

Here emerges one of the functions of the humorous or playful title: it individualizes a particular supplier of a relatively generic service (one drycleaner, launderette, barber, drain-unplugging service, etc is otherwise–“from the outside”–much like another. What does the humour project? Rapport, phatic goodwill, a kind of nonseriousness. They send out to us the reminder not that it’s a small world after all but that it’s a funny one. Additionally the very use of such titles amounts to a kind of displaying of competence that the service-provider implies they have. They are competent, they imply, to the point of having spare capacity which they can display in ‘doing verbal humour’. And this doing verbal humour may be particularly salient where the service itself is essentially non-verbal (the service will not be of the kind provided, for example, by a bookseller or a speech therapist) and non-humorous. Where are the jokes in drycleaning, snacks and simple meals, and standard haircutting, as processes? So the service-provider also displays that she or he is not just a grunt or mindless labourer even if the service they provide is perhaps socially categorized that way (i.e. categorized as unskilled labour, the kind of repetitive task that American slang dubs a ‘no-brainer’). The joke naming entails their taking up a detached evaluative stance on the routine drudgery that their business essentially involves. So the naming implies a little narrative, or the potential for one–something happening involving a character with a personality, a bit of spark– in which the service-provider, putting literal-minded naming and all it entails ‘under erasure’, asserts ‘Hey there’s a person here running/owning this laundry, with a mind of their own and a sense of humour, not just a robot or mechanism’.

Notably, few food chains, providing processed and ‘uninterpreted’ food, have joke names. Among other characteristics, such food chains are liberated from temporal or spatial delimitation in Giddens’s sense (if I show you a photograph of an Egg McMuffin and a Pepsi, you can have no basis in shared cultural knowledge for supposing that this was taken at one place in the world rather than any other, or at one time rather than another). They may be excluded from joke-naming because this would create a commercially undesirable individualization, which runs entirely counter to one of the alleged strengths of chains–namely that ‘you get the same burger meal in one McTucky King as you do in the next or indeed as you do at the one halfway around the world from here’.

On the other hand we have the Firkin pub chain, and the Rat and Parrot-type pub titles–mainly, in my view, not very interesting plays on the ubiquitous F word. These are only beginning to become interesting now that they are being policed by local authorities who are disallowing some such innovative name changes. The pub re-namings seem to postmodernly ironize the old pub names. The old namings would surely have merited a chapter in Barthes’ Mythologies, had he been English, with all their disclosures of myth, ideology, and upwardly-mobile nostalgia.

The [insert place name] Arms

The [insert traditional craftsman, trade, or metonymic accoutrements thereto]’s Arms: The Ostler’s Arms; The Quill and Parchment, the Meat and Cleaver, The Tin Whistle

The [insert name of monarch, military leader]

The [insert name of animal, bird, plant: expressive of the noble natural world or bubolic harmony]

Emblematize a memorable religious, cultural, or historical episode: The Lamb and Flag, The Eagle and Child, We Anchor in Hope, The Green Man

On the other hand consider, in the late modern revisionist tradition, the chain of ‘It’s a Scream’ public houses, each displaying a version of the famous Munch painting, like the one close by the entrance to Birmingham University. This pub continues to carry the name The Gun Barrels, a reminder of Birmingham’s precision metal engineering past, when it was the world leader in manufacture of small arms and armaments. But now, figuratively over that name, flies the Scream standard.

So joke shop-naming seems to be chiefly adopted by independent service providers rather than chains or franchisees, and in a self-fulfilling way such naming comes to display independence not merely of shop-ownership, but also of spirit, outlook, and so on. The names give off a whiff of counter-cultural funky defiance of hard-nosed commercialism, literal-mindedness, and dullness.

Enough philosophizing, let’s get to form: what patternings of form can we find in such attested examples as

The Selly Soak

The Selly Sausage.

The Bellybuster Café.

Soap Opera.

Most seem to comprise a determiner (optional) and two following lexical items, the second of which directly (as in Café) or more indirectly, via metaphor or metonymy (as in Soak to denote a laundry, Sausage to denote simple meals, and Opera most inventively evoking the idea of works and, perhaps, public performance, and perhaps, with its given modifying co-text, the idea of aspects of everyday life being played out in public). After all, at a high street launderette are you not literally washing your dirty linen in public (as happens in the typical soap opera)?

It doesn’t seem to be the case that the second word is always a stable, literal headword, like Café, to be preceded by a fanciful modifier. More often than not, the reverse is the case, with item 1, more conventional and Given, lexical item 2 more figurative, more requiring of a interpretive search for sense and relevance, hence more New. But taking into consideration the fundamental question that might pass through a person’s mind as their eyes scan a shopfrontage–namely, what is this premises for? What services does that shop offer?–then it is not the case that item 1 supplies a literal answer, while item 2 supplies a figurative or playful enigma.

Thus in two of the cited titles, item 1 is Selly, which seems to perform two secondary functions: it discloses the location of the shop or enterprise, which in the circumstances as uncontroversial to the point of redundancy; and it probably encourages the inference that, if there are a number of cafes or laundries in Selly Oak, then this is the preeminent member of the group, with some kind of proprietorial entitlement to represent the neighbourhood. (The redundancy of the locational modifier in the name of a café in Selly Oak being called The Selly Oak Café, must be distinguished from the frequent non-redundancy of locational epithet where, for example, a restaurant in Selly Oak might be called The Bombay Restaurant, or indeed one in Bombay that might be called The Birmingham Balti.)

While item 1 is often, I have suggested, secondary as far as informativeness as to the premises’ core service or function (one cannot identify service or function from being told that this premises is in, or is especially associated, with Selly or Selly Oak), item 2–often the more figurative or playful, is also typically the more informative and specifying: the premises is or offers a Soak or a Sausage, whatever these might be or might entail or imply. And the laundry, as a service, has directly to do with soaking in ways that it only contingently has to do with Selly Oak; similarly for the café.

In summary, the function or purpose of premises as announced or declared by a two-word whimsical naming seems often to pattern in the following way:

Item 1 Item 2

Conventional/codified figurative/interpretive

Orientational Informative

e.g. Selly Soak

Café Face

If this commentary is plausible, then these names typically obscure or postpone supplying a standard codificatory description of the service offered. Often enough, the opacity is locally and immediately disambiguated, for the situated interactant, for example by visual clues immediately adjacent to the lettering on the proprietor’s banner/board: in the case of The Selly Soak, visual depiction of copious soap bubbles, and the blue-white coloring suggest that the soak in question is part of the process of clothes-washing, and that the premises is not, for example, a jacuzzi and health-club. Again I think there is a link to, and a reaction to, the mundanity and routine-ness of the service offered: these are shopfronts and shopwindows which are hard to make visually interesting. And this is reflected by our windowshopping behaviour: these are typically premises where one cannot window-shop. [I use the verb window-shop loosely, to denote off-premises inspection of internally-displayed goods and services: these premises are scarcely describable as shops, in many cases, since they only secondarily if at all sell goods.] Even by comparison with the banal high street newsagents or greengrocers, there is substantially less motivation for window-shopping outside a coin-operated laundry or a dry-cleaners: what on earth would you be looking at? So again there are integrationally coherent reasons why, by and large, the laundry shopfront is something that shoppers will frequently entirely disregard as they move down the street, as if it were not there. A jokey name and shop sign becomes one small and perhaps memorable way in which the service-provider resists that consignment to invisibility. There is a situated rationale for making the shop name interesting, and attention-holding.

Other possible candidates for playful naming include: independent hardware stores, DIY stores, photographers, carpet suppliers, painting services, plumbers perhaps, electricians more doubtfully, tv repairs and rental services, car repairs/garages, sandwich bars and cafes. But not haute cuisine restaurants, probably not caterers; not petrol stations (too chain oriented?), butchers, bakers, greengrocers, dairies/ milk suppliers, suppliers of car parts..

I want to end this excursus with a series of questions, for discussion.

Are these jokey names idola fori, ‘idols of the market’, to use the characterization given by Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum, liable to mislead or ‘force’ the understanding? How cross-cultural are these as a phenomenon, as perhaps one small reflex of changes in neighbourhood retail practice in the late or postmodern period? Does their frequency of occurrence vary with assumed class or ethnicity of the majority of people in a neighborhood? Are they more prevalent in ‘inner suburbia’ than in urban, outer suburban, or rural locations? Are they associated especially with ‘funky’, student, or more transient communities or neighborhoods? I wonder about this since a brief survey of the parade of shops in one outer suburb of London revealed, by contrast with the namings in the student neighborhood of Selly Oak, a preponderance of the older-style neutral-literalists shop names: ‘Kate for HAIR FASHIONS’, ‘top Quality FISH CHICKEN AND CHIPS’, ‘Lee’s Hair for Men’, and, most uninspired of all: ‘Pickford CAFÉ, BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER’. Only two of some twenty or so premises hinted at ‘joke-name’ influences: a school uniforms retailers entitled, in an old-fashioned schoolbook script, “Boffins”–the inverted commas prominent as if to assure potential customers and their offspring that the retailer ‘didn’t really‘ regard children who bought all the correct school uniform as boffins; and an off-licence retailer of wines and spirits called The Bottle Stop.)

Are humorous shopnames interesting, worthy of integrationist consideration, and if so, why? Are they ‘more interactional’ than literal namings? They certainly seem more evaluative, or, to use the new systemicist term, they seem to carry more appraisal. Do they re-open the dusty old debate over whether proper names merely have reference, or whether they bear certain kinds of meaning besides? Do they put use-value back into labels that we have been trained to think of as mere labels, as mere place-holders? Do they foster a new kind of codification upon those who read these names and use these shops? Do they offend anyone? Do they irritate anyone? (For the man who is going bald, does it grate when he has to use a barber’s called Hair Today? Or for the woman with lank grey hair whose hairdressers is re-named Curl Up and Dye?). If face is as universal a phenomenon as interactional sociolinguists seem to believe, can all these jokey re-namings avoid any whiff of face-threat?

And what can the integrationist say about these? What are the specific characteristics of the biomechanical, macrosocial and circumstantial axes or parameters that warrant or at least give rise to businesses constructing such titles, and to us customers construing them in the way I have suggested we do? (In the C.A. language, ‘Why this now?’).