… choosing words as trademarks. NOAD2 on trademark:

a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product

Such words often come with associations to existing words, or parts of words, in the language, and sometimes there are official origin stories that invoke these associations, though the official stories often just scratch the surface of the full set of associations.

Which brings me back to my posting of the 16th on the Parisian home furnishing company FLEUX’ (and its mascot, Zwicky le Chat): where does the company name come from? (and why is the cat named Zwicky?)

Some bits of relevant background.

Some tradenames are clearly combinations of (parts of) two existing words — so, portmanteaus, or at least sort of like portmanteaus. The variety of cheese sold under the name Cambozola, for instance. The cheese is a blue-veined variety of a soft milk cheese (hence in some sense a cross between French brie or camembert and French Roquefort, English Stilton, or Italian Gorgonzola), and officially (according to the German company, Champignon, that produces it) the name is a portmanteau of Camembert and Gorgonzola. (In English-speaking countries, a similar cheese is sometimes sold under the — untrademarked — name blue brie. And, in fact, if you have a container that has stored a blue cheese, you can put some non-blue cheese in it and in a while you’ll get your own blue variety of that cheese, including blue brie. I’ve done this many times, sometimes intentionally.

But Cambozola isn’t your usual portmanteau, analyzable as X + Y, where X comes from one source name and Y from the other (with, typically an overlap portion shared by the two sources). Instead, the phonological and orthographic contributions of the two sources are interspersed with one another.

Other cases are much less clear than this one. Take the tradename Pyrex, which I looked at in a 5/31/15 posting. Many people think it contains the Greek pyr- ‘fire’ root (since it survives high temperatures) and possibly the Latin word rex ‘king’ as well (since it’s supremely good in this function). The official Corning origin story is that the name comes from pie (as in pie plate, an item for which Pyrex is a good use) + the –ex in names for new materials (perspex, spandex), with a linking r added to avoid an awkward V-V sequence. Whatever the origin, however, it seems likely that a number of different words resonate in various ways with the pronunciation and spelling of Pyrex to make it a “good name”.

Which brings me to FLEUX’. As far as I can tell, the name is pronounced [flœks], as if it were spelled FLEUXE (Éamonn McManus has suggested to me that the apostrophe in the spelling is not just ornamental, but is there to suggest an E missing in the spelling, thus ensuring that the [ks] is preserved; otherwise, FLEUX would be pronounced [flø]. Compare FLUX [fly] vs. FLUXE [flyks].)

In my posting on the 16th, I hesitantly floated the possibility that FLEUX’ is a portmanteau, with sources FLEUR ‘flower’ and FLUX ‘flow, change’. In greater detail:

FLEUR [flœr] + FLUX [fly] or FLUXE [flyks] = FLEUX [flø] or FLEUXE [flœks]

These sources would share the initial FL; the EU would come from FLEUR, the X from FLUX(E), both sources would have a front rounded (and non-low) vowel, and both sources would have positive associations with art and decoration. But this was all just a guess.

Digression on (current standard) French phonetics. The phonemic system of this variety, arranged in a vowel quadrangle, with IPA symbols:


Putting the low and central vowels aside, there are three vowel heights, to which I’ll assign numbers:

1 high, 2 higher-mid, 3 lower-mid

Vowels at height 2 have the mouth more closed (the jaw is higher; the vowels are usually called “close” (English /klos/)), those at height 3 have the mouth more open (the jaw is lower; the vowels are usually called “open”).

The broad generalization for mid Vs is: close V in (phonetically) open syllables, open V in (phonetically) closed syllables. Then, given that the EU spelling stands for a mid rounded V, we get the distinction between FLEUX [flø] and FLEUXE (or FLEUX’) [flœks] noted above. The vowel of FLEUX’ is then phonetically pretty distant from the high vowel [y] of FLUX(E).

End of digression.

This phonetic distance and the semantics of FLUX(E) worried Luc Vartan Baronian, who posted on Facebook:

If it is a blend, my guess is that they probably had “flou” [[flu]] in mind rather than “flux”. The word “flou” [‘fuzzy, vague, blurred, indistinct’] is often heard in the phrase “flou artistique” [‘soft focus’]. The first usages that come to my mind when I hear “flux” are listed at the top of the rubric [here] and are unlikely to be consciously evoked by the marketers of this kind of store. [This I will dispute.]

Unfortunately, FLOU has a high vowel, just like FLUX, and, worse, it’s back rather than front, so it’s quite distant phonetically from FLEUR.

(At this point, yet another semantically appropriate word with (again) a high vowel in it occurred to me as a possible contributor to FLEUX’: LUXE [lyks] ‘luxury’.)

Luc pressed on to search for possible second contributors to combine with FLEUR, all of them with [ø] in an open syllable and all of them semantically or pragmatically plausible:

As for the second element of the alleged blend, this is even more a wild guess, but the words “jeu(x)”, “veux” and “peux” (‘game’, ‘want’ and ‘can’) come to my mind.

Luc went on with some commentary on the vowel phonetics of his own (Canadian) variety of French. I don’t think the details are especially important here, but it is important to recognize that there is quite a lot of variation in the vowels of modern French varieties, so that given a range of customers for the shop we could expect considerable leeway in matching the vowels of different potential contributors to the brandname FLEUX’.

Add to that my observation above that brandnames can be concocted from bits and pieces of many different contributing words, some providing mere evocative associations, and the way is open to saying that FLEUX’ might work as a brandname by evoking any or all of the contributors suggested so far (plus two more, yet to come). It’s more of a mélange than a portmanteau.

Back to FLUX. In fact, this label is used in a variety of European languages (English and French included) to allude to artistic endeavor, creativity, energy, fashion, and so on, all going back to Latin flux ‘flux, flow’. So there’s the artistic movement Fluxus:

Fluxus — a name taken from a Latin word meaning “flow, flux” (noun); “flowing, fluid” (adj.) — is an international network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines in the 1960s. They have been active in Neo-Dada noise music and visual art as well as literature, urban planning, architecture, and design. Fluxus is sometimes described as intermedia. (link)

Fluxus is not only internationally arty, it’s also fashionable (though now a bit dated).

And an entirely separate endeavor:

The mission of the Flux Foundation is to engage people in designing and building large-scale public art as a catalyst for education, collaboration and empowerment.

The Flux Foundation exists as a new model for the exploration of large-scale art. At our core, we are collaborators. We believe that every step in the art-making process is an opportunity for people to work together to create something monumental. Individual contributions made by participants are invaluable and fundamental to the art we create. (link)

Meanwhile, there’s a Fluxus line of clothing, a Flux Art Fair in Harlem (in Manhattan), and much more arty and decorative flux-stuff.

The official story. As with Pyrex, FLEUX’ turns out to have an official naming story (which might or might not resonate with the people who use the name), and it was a complete surprise to me (as was, in fact, the idea that Pyrex had a pie in it). From Éamonn McManus (who, I should note, is both Irish and French, so now of course he lives in San Francisco and works in Silicon Valley), in a comment on my Zwicky le Chat posting:

“Fleux’, un drôle de mot, que les créateurs du lieu, Luc Moulin, architecte DPLG [diplômé par le gouvernement], et Gaëtan Aucher, designer floral, avaient inventé pour signifier à la fois le superflu et le luxe…” Which seems a fairly random sort of portmanteau. [But I’ve now argued that such names are often more like mélanges than proper portmanteaus.]

Their idea was to combine the –flu of superflu ‘superfluous’ with luxe ‘luxury’. At first my instinct was to try to make sense of superflu (again, ultimately from the Latin ‘flow’ verb) here by appealing to its earlier meaning ‘overflowing, extra’, so that it would be possible to understand superflu, as it stands or in an abbreviated form ‘flu, as an intensive, along the lines of ‘really, very much’. But it seems that in French, as in English, such earlier senses are just dead, and Fr superflu / Engl superfluous have only negative uses: ‘unnecessary, redundant, useless, etc.’ So in e-mail I floated to Éamonn the possibility that superflu was being used as a sort of joke, suggesting that the stores offer frivolous baubles, things nobody actually needs but might nevertheless desire. Éamonn concurred:

I haven’t been to Fleux’, but I’ve been to that sort of shop many times, and I’d say there is indeed a sense of knowing that the things there are not necessary but being proud of their elegance or quirkiness. I’d also suggest that there is some crosstalk from superficiel. My ex Alex [in France] used to revel in his ability to be superficiel while knowing that he could be serious when needed.

So to the already rich mélange add SUPERFLU and SUPERFICIEL, with some campy spices.

As for the cat, Éamonn noted in his comment on this blog:

Zwicky is apparently an actual cat in the shop. Though that still doesn’t say where the name came from.

and added some photos, including this close-up:


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