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March 2012

Late Victorian crowdsourcing


Today’s Guardian carries a story about Kraft Foods, who have set up a new company to handle their snack food products. As is often the case these days, rather than getting the professionals in to come up with a name, they launched a crowdsourcing-style competition. The result is Mondelez, where the ‘monde’ suggests ‘world’ and ‘delez’ supposedly suggests 'delicious'.

It doesn’t immediately strike you as a great name. The pronunciation is ambiguous and it sounds slightly like a French xxx-rated site.

The tone of the Guardian article is certainly wry and the comments so far suggest the name will draw mockery, not just on its intrinsic merit or lack of it, but also for the fact that it was crowdsourced – the winning suggestion came from two employees.

But it’s worth noting that, when it comes to naming, crowdsourcing is nothing new.

As long ago as 1890, a Macclesfield breadmaker called Richard ‘Stoney’ Smith launched a national competition to find a name for his new flour and breadmaking business. The winning entry came from a student called Herbert Grimes. And it was Hovis.

Like Mondelez, it comes from a contraction of two foreign-language words. In this case, it’s the Latin hominis vis, meaning ‘strength of man’.

It’s a great name, for which Herbert Grimes won £25. Not bad money in those days, although he may have negotiated more had he known it would still be around in 120 years.

The story is proof that crowdsourcing is far from the newfangled practice it’s made out to be. In many cases, it's really a fancy name for a competition.

There’s another interesting footnote on Hovis. The runner-up in the naming competition was ‘Yum yum’, which would have set a very different tone for the brand. It suggests that a tendency for slightly grating, infantilising brand language was also alive and well in 1890.

The picture at the top of this post (sourced here) shows the gravestone of Richard 'Stoney' Smith in Highgate Cemetery. It's a fascinating irregular shape and there is something satisfying about a Stoney stone, especially as it commemorates a man whose stock in trade was ground flour.

UPDATE: This article has subsequently appeared in a revised form on the Creative Review blog. Commenter Ben Millar notes that £25 would equate to £2,400 in today's money. Not to be sniffed at.

Failed jokes


I recently submitted a piece to a new magazine/bookmark project called dogear.co.uk. The piece was called 'Collision' and goes like this:


— Knock knock.
— Who's there?
— It's the police.
— It's the police who?
— It's the police. I'm afraid there's been a terrible accident.

I wrote it a while back as part of a notional series called 'Failed jokes', where jokes run up against the real world in a variety of strange and uncomfortable ways. The one above was the darkest. The rest never quite made it into a fully fledged project or series, but I thought I'd post some of them here. Imagine you're reading them on a set of lollipop sticks.

— How many trapeze artists does it take to change a lightbulb?
— Leave it, I’ll do it.

— Doctor, doctor, my arms keep falling off!!
— When did this start happening?
— Yesterday!!
— And how often does it happen?
— Every ten minutes!!
— Are there any other symptoms?
— No. My arms just fall off!!
— Hold on, I’m going to get the senior registrar.
— OK!!

— What do you get when you cross a blancmange with a combine harvester?
— I'm on the phone.

— What do you get when you cross a kangaroo with a ham sandwich?
— I hate it when you're like this.

— What do you call a giraffe in a baseball cap?
— Can we just order?

— Penguin walks into a bar and asks for a pint of lager. The barman is about to serve another customer, which the penguin hadn't realised, and the penguin apologises, even though they’d both arrived at about the same time. The other customer barely acknowledges the apology and takes forever to order two cappucinos. The barman stands by the coffee machine waiting for it to percolate, rather than serving the penguin at the same time, because he's incapable of doing two jobs at once. The bar, which was empty a minute ago, is now full of people waiting to be served. When the barman finally brings the coffees over, the customer wants to pay by card, which takes a lot longer than paying by cash. The barman then serves the person standing closest to the till, forgetting that the penguin should have been next. The penguin is furious and leaves.

— What did the bear say to the helicopter?
— Just here at the lights, thanks.

— My dog's got no nose!
— Sorry?
— My dog's got no nose!
— No, it keeps dropping out.
— I'm saying my dog's got no nose. Ask me how...
— Can you call me back on the landline?
— OK, hold on a sec.

— Why did I marry you, Keith?
— I don’t know, why did you marry me, Karen?!
— Keith, I’m sorry. It’s over this time.
— Me no geddit!

— Why did the wombat eat the mango?
— Because you’re an idiot.

— Two men are out hunting in the woods and one of them accidentally shoots the other.
— When did this happen?
— So he goes to the phone box and calls the operator.
— Jesus Christ. Is someone coming to help?
— Look, don’t worry about it.

That kind of thing.

You can read more about Dog Ear on Creative Review.



It was a year yesterday that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Sendai in northern Japan causing a massive tsunami. I remember hearing the news after a sleepless night (our son was three weeks old). I wrote this poem at the time, which I thought I would post up here. The picture above is from this news story.


A nightmare of a night: really the worst—
stood in the bathroom, swaying back and forth
(he likes the sound of the extractor fan),
humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,
hoping to God as his eyes begin to close
up above the world so high… then jolt
bolt open, limbs locked in sudden fight
or flight—and now the panic-stricken wail.
And so it goes from roughly 2am
to the distant glow of daylight in the east,
and the slow, defeated trudge down the stairs
(as finally he decides to start to snooze),
to sink into the sofa, turn on the news.