Monday, November 30, 2009

What's in a Word?

I love thinking about words. From Dan Brown’s latest great read, The Lost Symbol, I’ve just learned about how the word sincerely is thought to have come into the language. When marble workers during the Roman Republic wanted to cover an imperfection, they would fill it with wax and press marble dust into it. The mistake disappeared. This was considered dishonest.

In Latin, sine means without; cere means wax. So sincerely means without wax. Every time you sign a letter with Sincerely or Yours sincerely, you’re really saying “this letter is written honestly -- without wax.” Isn’t that wonderful?! I love stuff like that.

English is so alive and organic. It’s not easy to keep up with it all. Just think, ten years ago no one would have understood the verb to google. As recently as a year ago, no one would have understood the verb to tweet.

It’s especially not easy to keep up with the changes in English when one has to learn American as well. As a born and bred English person, I work hard at being bilingual. For example, in stead of saying turn right I now say take a right without even thinking of asking “take a right where and in what?” I’ve even mastered hang a left without being tempted to look for a clothes line.

But there are some words that I still can’t get my tongue around, for example, utilize. It’s three syllables after all. It’s a lot of work! I’m going to stick with its more efficient cousin use because otherwise the utilization of utilize takes way too much breath and sounds as if I’m trying to be something I’m not.

And how about the word robust? This fine word used to be savored about once a year to describe a hearty red wine at the holidays. Now it’s used, with the appropriate hand-speak, to describe anything from an idea to a budget. I like the word robust; it feels good in the mouth which may be why it’s become the word of the moment. But it’s on the way to losing its power from over utilization. I’ve had complaints from other words who are beginning to feel neglected.

However, not all is lost, because in the cosmetic world we have a language that doesn’t go in and out of fashion but remains the same whether you’re in New Zealand or Norway and anywhere in between. It’s called INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients). The majority of ingredient labels use INCI. This doesn’t mean you’ll be able to understand it because most of it will be in Latin -- that universal language with which we’re all so conversant.

The United States doesn’t require this international language, although almost every other country does. So, if you ship overseas, this has led to some interesting problems for us manufacturers not the least of which is the word water.

Yes, water. This two syllable word that heads many ingredient lists has been the subject of more meetings, more angst, more high-level discussion than any ingredient anywhere on earth. The Latin word for water is aqua. However, the FDA feels that not enough Americans know what aqua means so they want water to be called water, which would give us water/aqua on our labels.

Not so fast. To comply internationally, manufacturers must list the INCI word first which gives us aqua/water (with the FDA looking on with robust disapproval). Then the French weigh in and insist that if French translations are used on the package (an absolute requirement if you ship to Canada) that everything in English must be translated into French. This leaves us with Aqua/Water/Eau on our labels, that are already griping about all the information they have to carry.

And you thought being a cosmetic manufacture just meant deciding which new lipstick colors to bring out.

Well, that’s it for now. I’m going to grab a shower (round the waist), fix my hair (I’ve just found a fabulous new glue), and take in a movie (I’m tired of watching them. It’s more exciting to inhale them). After that, I’ll probably become a couch potato and catch a few zzzz’s (in my butterfly net) because I’ve been working 24/7!