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July 30, 2000 - Car Names - 2002-01-31

INTRO: This week VOA's Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti check out the power that drives car names in America.

MUSIC: "Mustang Sally"/Wilson Pickett

AA: America traded horses for horsepower a long time ago. But out on the road you still find yourself behind Mustangs, Colts and Broncos.

Even if the most exotic place you go is the shopping mall, you can get there in a Caravan or an Expedition. There's even the Probe. And there are names that bite back like the Viper.

RS: Car companies spend a lot of time and money choosing names. They want to make sure that the name fits the vehicle, and that the image matches the driver. So says Warren Brown, who writes about cars for the Washington Post. He explained why, for instance, General Motors has just combined a pickup truck and a truck- like sport utility vehicle, or S-U-V, and named it the Chevrolet Avalanche.


WARREN BROWN: "Avalanche was chosen as much because `Chev-ro-let [shev-ro-lay] A-va- lanche' kind of flows together. Forget the fact that avalanches tend to kill people! But, it's basically how the name flows together. How does it sound coming out of the mouth?"

AA: "It would be like the Ford Earthquake!"

WARREN BROWN: "Things like earthquake have been considered. But the Avalanche, for example is not the first disaster type name. You've had the Cyclone. You've had the Tempest. You've had the Comet."

RS: Take us through the process with the Avalanche. And, how did Avalanche get its name?

WARREN BROWN: First of all you start with the truck. You start with the (market) segment. The Avalanche is a full-sized pick-up truck. But, it is no longer adequate to have a full- sized pick-up truck. It is no longer adequate to have a full-sized S-U-V. The truck market is becoming increasingly segmented. So, now the idea is to have a truck that also acts like an S-U-V and an S- U-V that acts like a pick-up. It basically can do multi-purpose things. So, what do you do? You go for a name in G-M's (General Motors) mind that is really powerful, that is really forceful, that captures attention, but that also people can pronounce. It sounds good coming off of the tongue. Chevy Avalanche!"

AA: But the name also has to prove itself in public. Test marketers begin with a trip to the mall to ask passersby their opinion.

RS: But, Warren Brown says, only certain people are interviewed.


"The auto industry is not that democratic. It really doesn't care what the public in general thinks about a name. It only cares what the target market thinks about the name.

If you like hiking, biking, camping. If you are a person who likes to take chances in extreme sports...

AA: "Or think you do."

RS: "Or what you perceive yourself as doing."

WARREN BROWN: "... then come and talk with us. Have we got a name for you."

AA: But the name game doesn't end at the mall. People from the targeted market are invited to attend small focus groups to discuss the name and the vehicle.


"Several of the G-M executives told me that finally they decided to stop being politically correct and say, `Look, does this name scare you? Do you think of ice coming down, killing people?'"

RS: And, when Avalanche passed THAT test, and after GM lawyers said there was no conflict with the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, a new truck name was born.

AA: Warren Brown says this process takes time and lots of money. He says a bad name could hurt sales.


WARREN BROWN: "You try not to offend anyone. For example, I went through a list of historical names that you wouldn't dare use today. The Wasp wouldn't play in politically correct America."

AA: "W-A-S-P . . . White Angle Saxon Protestant."

WARREN BROWN: "Of course it didn't mean that then. It's an (insect)."

RS: "Bzzzzz."

WARREN BROWN: "It just goes, right? But, now they wouldn't touch it."

AA: Automotive writer Warren Brown says that in the global market place, car companies like names that can easily cross borders.

RS: Names that combine letters and numbers and take no linguistic skill to understand like the Mercedes Benz E320, or the BMW X5.

AA: But, Warren Brown says he expects American car companies to go on naming cars as they have, as long as Americans see in those chrome nameplates a reflection of who they want to be.

RS:Before we hit the road, if you have a question about American English, write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20237. Or you can send e-mail to

AA:With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.