What’s In A Word? “Bimbo” – Harmless, Sexist Or Racist…?

I’ve not lived in Germany for over two decades, and so many of the newfangled slang words and expressions, that have crept into everyday parlance, escape me. Until they hit me round the head unexpectedly, like in this instance.

So, in June last year, my brother and his friend came to visit me in Toledo (Spain). We were picking up some bits and pieces from the local convenience store, when my house guests stopped dead in front of the bread shelf. With an incredulous expression on his face, my brother pointed to some packs of bread bearing the “Bimbo” brand name. “Is this for real…?”

I must say, I was surprised by their reaction. The lads’ English is perfectly serviceable in tourist situations, but did it really stretch to slang terms like “bimbo”? (For those who don’t know: it’s a somewhat sexist word in English, meaning a physically attractive, but brainless and superficial young woman).

And they didn’t know. It soon transpired that, in German, “bimbo” is something a whole lot worse: it’s akin to “Sambo”, a pejorative “name” slapped onto any random male black person by those inclined towards racist stereotyping. (At least, that’s the case in UK English).

[Image courtesy of eastofmalaga.net]

[Image courtesy of eastofmalaga.net]

Bimbo bakery products are made by Grupo Bimbo, a Mexican food industry giant. Grupo Bimbo is the world’s second biggest bakery company, and the Bimbo brand is found in virtually every Latin American country.

The company also has business in many other markets across the globe, including the US (The Thomas’ and Entenmann’s brands belong to Grupo Bimbo, for instance), but the geographic spread of the actual Bimbo brand is pretty much restricted to Romance language markets. As far as I’m aware, Bimbo means “baby” in Italian, and it’s perfectly safe to use in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries.

If the company wanted to sell its buns and baps in Anglophone markets under its eponymous brand name, it may just raise a chuckle and a few eyebrows instead of sales revenues, but there is absolutely no way they could ever be placed onto the supermarket shelves of Europe’s German-speaking region.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Once called a “Negerkuss”.
For the Brits among you, It’s pretty similar to a Tunnock’s Tea Cake, except that it’s a tad taller and has a wafer base instead of a biscuit. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Bimbo incident made me think of how much my native language had changed over the years in terms of usage. When I was a kid, one of my favourite sweet treats was a chocolate covered marshmallow dome called a “Negerkuss”.

“Kuss” means “kiss”, and back then, it was the norm to refer to black people as “Neger”. This term wasn’t considered offensive thirty years ago, but nowadays, it’s almost on a par with “nigger”. The only ones who still use it are a charming bunch of sub-humanoids aka Neonazis, and my grandmother. (This warrants a post in itself, and one day, when I’m feeling brave enough, I might tackle it…)

Since confectionery companies already had enough on their hands with fending off the blame for turning the populace into big-butted Michelin men, the Negerkuss was duly renamed Schokokuss or Schaumkuss. (“Schaum” means “foam”).

Incidentally, another traditional word for this type of product is “Mohrenkopf”. Mohr = moor and Kopf = head, so it’s very questionable…! In Germany, this has also given way to the far more innocuous Schoko/Schaumkuss. As far as I’m aware, the term Mohrenkopf is still in use in Switzerland.

Have you come across brand names on your travels that absolutely wouldn’t fly back home? Or maybe some products, that were already around in your youth, have been re-baptised to bring them into line with modern day sensibilities?

[For a post about brands on sale in Spain which tend to tickle English speakers’ funny bone, see this post http://eastofmalaga.net/2013/05/18/seriously-would-you-buy-these-products]

 

If you are interested in my specialist language blog, click here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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77 thoughts on “What’s In A Word? “Bimbo” – Harmless, Sexist Or Racist…?

  1. Marianne

    Thanks for the link – I can certainly see the confusion regarding the Bimbo brand, in Germany. I’ll have to bear that in mind when I’m looking for bread, as I am on the train at the moment heading at high speed towards Salzberg and ultimately, Munich!

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    1. wscstgrl

      This was a fun read – thanks! As kids growing up in Canada in the fifties we spent some of our weekly allowance on black jelly candies that back then were called ‘nigger babies’. They’ve since been re-labeled the much more acceptable ‘licorice kids’. Brazil nuts, something that we only had around Christmas at our house, also had a totally unacceptable nickname that I won’t repeat here.

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      1. Anna

        I just came up with a brand (cause like Polly I was stuck for something Russian). Anyway, it’s sort of a reverse situation – the online auction site eBay can be read as ‘yeebaj’ in Russian, which means ‘to fuck’ but even more crude. So I have to make sure to pronounce it REAL American, ‘eeeeehbeeeehj’. Russians love to make fun of it, too.

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  2. Anna

    Negr is still the default word for referring to a black person (and is not used as an insult/derogatory term), but some VERY politically correct folks occasionally use the term African American (picked up from the US media), but they do it indiscriminately, and apply it to blacks who have no connection to America whatsoever. For example the large African student community in Moscow.

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      1. Anna

        Well, in Spain it seems more understandable bc negro=black. But in Russian it’s chyornyj (or chernokozhij=black-skinned, still phonetically nowhere close to ‘negr’), but to my Russian ear it actually somehow sounds more offensive than ‘negr’ – probably also bc the word chyorny IS used as a pejorative when referring to the people of the Caucasus.

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      1. Anna

        Yes! Totally! But see, it’s hard to find a happy medium with our own ethnic issues, which make ‘black’ worse than ‘negro.’ So African-American sometimes becomes the REALLY catch-ALL-ALL-ALL politically correct term for all non-Maghreb African people.

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  3. solberg73

    Since this is a subject which intrigues and fascinates me also, one would assume I have a file somewhere of the tons of examples in our rich malapropism proving grounds here in the Middle East. Sadly, except for a dozen or so archive posts,(which I can’t find) I can’t furnish ready salient examples.
    We do have car-name problems here. KIA has a respectable market share, despite the name meaning ‘Vomit’ in Hebrew. Another one is the ‘Lancer’ by Mitsibushi as the company is called here despite their insistence on Mitsubishi. I saw a headline a few years ago from a customer complaining ‘I bought a car lancer, now I want to give it back.’ Since we have yet to discover capital letters and vowels, the thing read: ‘I bought a car to cut up, and now…” (le-na-cer’ is the infinitive of to cut.

    But as to racist overtones, bless our jewish hearts, any innuendo in that realm would be snuffed out post haste by the local will to respect all cultures. Warms my heart it does.

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  4. Lynda

    I saw the Bimbo brand in Southern California. It was fairly new to us there and came out right before we moved.

    I had exactly the response you would have predicted when I saw a panel truck emblazoned with the trade name.

    Conversely, when the SavOn drugstores tried to change their name to “Osco” it had a very negative response from the hispanic populace of Southern California! So negative, in fact, that they had to change it back to SavOn. It was a much talked about corporate debacle at the time! 😉

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      1. Lynda

        True! I was just reminded that in all my Thai cookbooks there is an ingredient called Kaffir Lime. They are the leaves of the Kaffir lime tree, and indispensable to the flavor of recipes which include them. Recently there has been a move on by some individuals to change its name to makrut lime, because it is a racist slur in S. Africa.

        Oh yes, and I neglected to mention that to the Mexican culture osco = vomit.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        There’s certainly a lot of vomit around today, lol. (If you’ve read the comment from a Hebrew speaker).

        I was vaguely aware of the kaffir issue. Raises the point that English usage and word connotations differ significantly across anglophone countries and even within.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      As someone pointed out before, this is a big problem for car manufacturers, because you want to be calling your model the same wherever it is sold. The name of a food brand is much easier to adapt to a specific markets.

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  5. linnetmoss

    A friend was just telling me about the Schaumkuss! He once gave a lecture on translating brand names and had a complaint filed against him for even pronouncing “Negerkuss” in front of a class (the complaint was dismissed, but what an ordeal). He also mentioned that Totes Umbrellas had a bit of a disaster when they named the German branch of their company Totes Deutschland.

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      1. linnetmoss

        Yes, political correctness has run amok. Another colleague got in trouble for showing a picture of Priapus in a Roman literature course. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’ve put disclaimers in my syllabi.

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  6. freebutfun

    My English speaking has had a lot of fun at some Finnish chocolate biscuits called “Fanny palat” and crisp sold in “megapussi” or “minipussi”… Btw, we’ve had the same change in the name of the Negerkuss.

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  7. Expat Eye

    ‘Bimbo’ bread just makes me chuckle 😉 Can’t think of any Latvian examples off the top of my head. There is a chocolate bar by Tuplo (I think) called Nut Kick though 😉

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  8. Tim

    Wow, I never knew that about the word Bimbo in German, thanks for the warning!

    Your blog post made me think of the Golden Gaytime, a well-known ice cream here in Australia. Apparently it was so named back in the late 50s / early 60s, when gay meant happy. But, in this case, the manufacturer kept the original product name as the meaning of the word shifted 🙂

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  9. bevchen

    Woah… I had NO idea that bimbo meant that in German.

    In Austria, there’s a brewery called Mohrenbräu. The brewery was named after the founder, Josef Mohr, but the logo is a silouette of a man’s head that looks specially non-white…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I was surprised to discover a white “Mohr” on the Sarotti website when I checked it yesterday. They clearly had to adapt their imagery…. (their logo itself has not changed much, I guess that’s trickier)

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  10. sakasiru

    When I grew up, those little firecrackers now called “Ladykracher” were called “Judenfürze” (jew farts). Which is of course awfully racist once you’re old enough to get it.

    But I never felt “Negerkuss” as racist. “Neger” itself has come out of use, but I think it’s more because of the English “nigger” connotation that it became frowned upon, that actually being a curse word in German. After all, you can say *every* word with a derogative tone (just listen to a neonazi say “Türke”), but that doesn’t make the word itself bad. Personally, I don’t like the approach “it is used by some bad people in a derogative way so lets drop the word and invent another”. I think English has gone through quite a few words for black people because of this, and it doesn’t help the problem at all. But I disgress…
    Now put together with the word “Kuss” and the fact that it’s a very delicious treat, I never thought of “Negerkuss” as a bad word and I don’t think it ever was meant as one. Of course the companies will not risk a controversy, but personally I think it’s a case of “vorauseilender Gehorsam” (anticipatory obedience).

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      1. Bastet

        know what you mean…but it was interesting to see how the word has been transformed…it’s like not being able to use the words Fifty Shades anymore because they’ve become associated with a provocative book I guess… 😉

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      2. Bastet

        Ach I read an interesting post similar to yours on Rarasaur…she writes about words that one can’t feel good about using anymore because they’ve been transformed by pop culture…know that my little sister no longer can use here middle name…Gay.

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  11. gkm2011

    Do they still sell the Filipinos chocolate cookies in Spain? When I lived there, that one always made my friends and I a little nervous – though that didn’t prevent us from gobbling them down!

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  12. catalinadelbosque

    Purely focussing on the sweeties, we have the Frankfurt Christmas Market in Birmingham at the moment and they always sell those little chocolate marshmallows, just YUM! I must have eaten about 50 in two weeks this year!!

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  13. sandradan1

    Foreign brands have always had difficulties translating between markets. The name Sony was originally chosen because it was thought to be pronounced ‘sunny’, and LG is of course not ‘Life’s Good’ but Lucky Goldstar which immediately conjures up pictures of brightly coloured plastic stuff. There must be thousands of examples. My husband is most amused by the VW’s electric version of its Up car which was rumoured to be called the e-Up [queue many jokes here from him about sales prospects in Yorkshire, where I hale from]. I must admit, I always smile when a see a loaf of Bimbo. Happy 2014! SD

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  14. Pingback: Linkies 03/01/14 | Sherbet and Sparkles

  15. Deanna Herrmann

    I remember how hard my husband, who is German, laughed when I used the word bimbo talking about how I had been treated by a bar guest. He then explained to me the German meaning and I was shocked. He also told me about the Schokokuss (Dickmans). The names these companies use really have me laughing, but it suppose it gets you talking and that’s the point.

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