Letter to the New Yorker, June 13 & 20, from Casey Lambert of Princeton NJ:
[In "Test-Tube Burgers", May 23, Michael] Specter writes, of lab-grown meat, that “the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was ‘Yuck.’ ” But the “yuck factor” derives from the words used to describe the product: “in-vitro meat,” “cloned beef,” and “test-tube burgers.” Clearly what is needed is a new word for cultured protein. If we are able to consume millions of hot dogs (what? dogs?), burgers (misspelled German citizens?), bowls of Grape Nuts (really?), and cans of Spam (don’t even ask); if we can make a multi-million-dollar industry out of Yoplait and Activia; if we can come to love wasabi, sushi, and tandoori, then, surely, we can embrace a novel meat product with a name like Newtein, Newtrient, or Protean.
Well, it’s complex.
Surely a lot of the yuck factor comes from attitudes to the substance itself. If you find the idea of eating goat, deer, or rabbit (not to mention horse, snake, or dog) unpleasant, then jiggling the name of the meat is probably not going to make you feel more receptive to it — unless marketers actually disguise the identity of the stuff via the name (the way I hid Japanese eel under the name brownfish for my man Jacques, who detested eels but loved the sushi; the mother of a childhood friend of mine similarly concealed bean soup under the name Egyptian lentil soup, until her son was confronted with it at the summer camp he and I went to).
(Quite separately, there are names with unfortunate associations for some people, so that changing the name can improve things: horse mackeral to tuna, dolphin(fish) to mahi-mahi, and the like).
Despite all this, some names simply survive and even flourish, despite whatever unfortunate resonances they might have. People just get used to them. The trick comes in introducing new things (with names for them). For this, there are branding firms, and there’s a complex craft to devising the names and testing them.
Newtein and Newtrient would be problematic for me because they evoke Newt Gingrinch, not to mention newts. And Protean because it suggests changeability. All three of Lambert’s suggestions evoke nutrition (rather than satisfying food) for me — so they’re better than test-tube burgers, but scarcely seductive. Not that I have any better proposals at the moment.
Call in the branding firms!