"Lumia" Means "Prostitute"? For Product Names, Sometimes Other Meanings Don't Matter

What do you think of when you hear the word "lumia"? 

Does it make you think of related words like luminous ("shining, bright"), luminescent ("glowing"), lumen (a unit of light measurement), and luminary ("an eminent person")? That's the association that most native English speaker will have, and it's not surprising: there are lots of English words built on the Latin root lūmen, meaning "light."

So Nokia's choice of the name Lumia for its new Windows Phone-powered smartphone family was entirely reasonable. It fulfills the basic requirements for a good name: it's short, pronounceable, legally available, and has positive associations. And this type of evocative name showed a clear break from Nokia's previous alphanumeric labeling convention, signaling something new and exciting. Nokia has always sold a lot of phones, but they're mostly B2B offerings that don't have touchscreens, cool features, or data plans. Lumia was Nokia's metaphorical experiment with plaid shirts (the emblem of hipness), and they've since followed up in Europe with the Nokia Asha (asha is the Hindi word for "hope").

But then! Oh noes! Someone Googled the word lumia and found that somewhere, some time, it meant "prostitute" in Spanish. It seems to have originated in a tweet by tech writer Zach Epstein, and was then picked up by Rosa Golijan at MSNBC--and from there it went galactic. As Golijan writes, 

"The squeaky clean reference texts sitting on my bookshelf were of no help, but that wasn't surprising--they fail to include most slang terms. That was not a problem though, because the Real Academia Española and Google Books came to the rescue. The Real Academia Española is an institution that is considered one of the authorities of the Spanish language. According to its online dictionary, "lumia" is a synonym for "prostituta.""

Once this tidbit started to fly around the Interwebs, native Spanish speakers mostly scratched their heads and said, "Huh. Never heard that one." This is because, as Golijan points out, it's a rather obscure term that only occurs in varieties of Spanish that are heavily influenced by the Romani (Gypsy) language. And you can imagine how often that happens.

That brings up back to the question: Now that you know this, what does the word "lumia" mean to you? Sure, you might have a moment of "oh yeah, that Spanish thing" but all the other positive meanings, of light and brilliance and glowyness, are going to crowd that right out of your head. And 99% of Spanish speakers don't know about the "prostitute" meaning. So, does it matter?

In this case, almost certainly not. And Nokia knew about that meaning before it launched the name, having done their due diligence, both from a trademark and linguistic perspective, as described on the Nokia blog:

Then experts in 84 dialects started work, checking for any negative associations in different languages and assessing how easy they are to pronounce. Some letters like J, L R and V are difficult to pronounce in certain countries. Some languages don’t have certain letters in their alphabet (like Q in Polish). This process is never foolproof--as a couple of comments pointed out lumi, or lumia, is a very old Spanish word, long fallen into disuse. Chris George says “Although it was slang, we did pick that up and decided to run consumer research to check the connotations. The results showed that over 60% of Spanish consumers thought it was a great name for mobile technology. They thought firstly of ‘light’ and ‘style’ rather than the more obscure, negative meaning”.

Of course, there are lots of examples of names launched by companies who were totally clueless about the negative meanings either in English or in other languages--like the Reebok Incubus or Umbro Zyklon--but not the Chevy Nova, as that's purely an urban myth. You've got to at least look the name up in the dictionary, or consult our friend Google.

But you've also got to consider any negative associations within the context of your marketing plan. Negative meaning in an obscure language that no one really uses? Probably not an issue. Odd associations completely outside your target audience, as in the example of Pocari Sweat (popular in Japan, not marketed in the US)? Again, not a problem. A name that sounds like a word that makes kids giggle? Nintendo didn't really have a problem with Wii.

In short, it's all about balance. The interwebs are quick to jump on perceived screw-ups in marketing by big companies, but don't we all love picking on the big guys? Research your name, but don't freak out if you get one Google hit on a slang meaning listed in Urban Dictionary, used by one dude and 7 of his friends. You brand is bigger than that.

Laurel Sutton is a partner and co-founder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.

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[Image: Flickr user le calmar]

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