May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP?
In which Marianne Moore attempts to name a new car
In 1955, as they failed to pluck from the ether a name for their hugely anticipated new car, Ford Motor Company decided to ask the most unlikely of people to assist in the matter: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Marianne Moore. In a letter to Moore, the company’s marketing research department offered a brief:
We should like this name to be more than a label. Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself. To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people’s minds.
Moore said yes, and over the course of a few months proceeded to supply them with a delicious selection of words with which to brand their car. Sadly, Ford’s marketing department lacked imagination and a soul, and all of Moore’s ideas were ignored. Instead, they named their new car “Edsel.” And Edsel flopped.
A sad story. What we gained, however, is an inspired list of names—none used!—spread across a series of letters. They can be read below.
October 27, 1955
Dear Mr. Young,
My brother thought most of the names I had considered suggesting to you for your new series too learned or too labored, but thinks I might ask if any of the following approximate the requirements:
THE FORD SILVER SWORD
This plant, of which the flower is a silver sword, I believe grows only in Tibet, and on the Hawaiian Island, Maui on Mount Háleákelá (House of the Sun); found at an altitude of from 9,500 to 10,000 feet. (The leaves—silver-white—surrounding the individual blossoms—have a pebbled texture that feels like Italian-twist backstitch all-over embroidery.)
My first thought was of a bird series—the swallow species—Hirundo, or, phonetically, Aërundo. (A species that takes its dinner on the wing—"swifts".) Malvina Hoffman is designing a device for the radiator of a made-to-order Cadillac, and said in her opinion the only term surpassing Thunderbird would be hurricane; and I thought Hurricane Hirundo might be the first of a series such as Hurricane Aquila (eagle), Hurricane Accipiter (hawk), and so on.
If these suggestions are not in character with the car, perhaps you could give me a sketch of its general appearance, or hint as to some of its exciting potentialities—though my brother reminds me that such information is highly confidential.
November 19, 1955
Some other suggestions, Mr. Young, for the phenomenon:
THE RESILIENT BULLET
or Intelligent Bullet
or Bullet Cloisoné or Bullet Lavolta
(I have always had a fancy for THE INTELLIGENT WHALE—the little first Navy submarine, shaped like a sweet potato; on view in our Brooklyn Yard.)
THE FORD FABERGÉ
(That there is also a perfume Fabergé seems to me to do no harm, for here allusion is to the original silversmith.)
THE ARC-en-CIEL (the rainbow)
Please do not feel that memoranda from me need acknowledgement. I am not working day and night for you; I feel that etymological hits are partially accidental.
November 28, 1955
Dear Mr. Young,
REGNA RACER (couronne à couronne) sovereign to sovereign
Fée Rapide (Aerofée, Aero Faire, Fée Aiglette, Magi-Faire) Comme II Faire
Tonnèrre Alifère (winged thunder)
Aliforme Alifère (wing-slender, a-wing)
TURBOTORC (used as an adjective by Plymouth)
THUNDERBIRD allié (Cousin Thunderbird)
I shall be returning the sketches very soon.
December 6, 1955
Dear Mr. Young,
Tir à l'arc (bull's eye)
Triskelion (three legs running)
Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather foot)
Andante con Moto (description of a good motor?)
December 8, 1955
May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP? Do not trouble to answer unless you like it.
November 8, 1956
Dear Miss Moore,
Because you were so kind to us in our early and hopeful days of looking for a suitable name, I feel a deep obligation to report on events that have ensued.
And I feel I must do so before the public announcement of same come Monday, November 19.
We have chosen a name out of the more than six thousand-odd candidates that we gathered. It has a certain ring to it. It fails somewhat of the resonance, gaiety, and zest we were seeking. But it has a personal dignity and meaning to many of us here. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is—Edsel.
I hope you will understand.
Special Products Division
The above list of names can be found in the Lists of Note book. Which reminds me: Lists of Note is being revived as a weekly newsletter, beginning 27th March, and I’m very excited. Very simple premise: each Sunday, I’ll be sending a single list from history. A lot more interesting than it sounds, I promise. Find out more and sign up here.