Microsoft curses at us in HebrewSome of you may know, I’m obsessed with Hebrew. I think about it constantly, every time an Israeli utters a word, I’ve got the linguistic equivalent of ‘Terminator vision’–I’m listening to inflection, especially to guttural pronunciations I still struggle with, dissecting and diagramming the word’s root and biblical derivation, where apparent, and wondering what other words are related.

So naturally, when the Wall Street Journal published an item last week about the new Zune MP3 player, designed to give iPod a run for its money, and the article happened to mention that the name of the player was awfully close to a Hebrew vulgarity, my parents naturally saved the piece for me. Not that I had lots of vulgar slang experience, but the process for analysis was still the same. Commence ‘Terminator vision.’ I immediately extrapolated to the word “zonah,” which was at least right at the root.

Then I remembered that there was another word, descriptive of the male anatomy, that was closer to “zune.” Still, it wasn’t close enough. Then I remembered that Email is not pronounced “ehmail,” but “eee-mail.” iPod is not pronounced “eepod,” but “eyepod.” (Although I have no doubt that unhipper Israeli parents are looking everywhere for the “eepod” and are unable to find it. That pronunciation recalls the ephod, part of the priestly garments, if I recall correctly, but I supposed Apple did not intend the allusion.) I said it aloud. “Z-une.” “What does that mean in English?” my parents asked. Oy. So I told them. I said the f-word to my parents. On Shabbat.

Of course, if only we had waited until after Shabbat, we’d have been able to check the internet, where such news had already been discussed on various tech blogs. Microsoft was counting on this MP3 player to take a bite out of Apple’s market share; but apparently, despite some positive reviews, Marketwatch reports that Apple’s $29.99 iPod USB power adapter (along with 74 other items) is outselling the Zune on the ‘Zon (that’s But probably not because there’s a Hebrew vulgarity in the name.

Like I told my parents, the name’s not going to make a product successful in Israel. But if the product is a success here, the product will be a success in Israel. Specifically, I said that if a company decided it had a new hot product, and instead of calling it iPod, or Wii, or Blu-Ray, or Zune, it decided on “Shilshul,” if it was a success in the States, I am pretty sure Israelis would still buy it. (Think about it: “First there was a Pentium, now there’s new Intel Inside: Shilshul.”) We almost brainstormed on creating a product that would test this theory, but the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to think about a product of any sort named Shilshul. Of course, I assume that people don’t feel the same way about shilshul as they do about ziyun. But I’m no international marketing specialist. It’s only a theory.

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Esther Kustanowitz

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  • I think they naturally wanted to be provocative, in order to create some buzz and move more product. I knew a gal who was in the branding biz. She was the only scholar of ancient languages I knew who not only was gainfully employed, but happily so. It was a most lucrative endeavor for her. Naturally she was soon running the place.

    So most of these shops know exactly what they’re doing. Still the Nova brand lasted for years as a bad example. Sadly the quality of the larger GM brand has not improved much over the years! Cheers & Good Luck, ‘VJ’

  • hehe, excellent analysis 🙂 reminds me of a mistake my mother made. She was teaching in university after she made Aliyah, and told her students “the ziyunim were good” instead of “the tziyunim were good” …

  • It’s only REALLY a problem in British-style English accents, where “Zune” is pronounced ZYOON.

    In American-style English accents, where it’s pronounced ZOON, much less.

    Of course, most Israelis speak British English, hence the annoying Nyu York for “New (=Noo) York”.

  • Gee, I thought Matisyahu was a search engine for French Impressionist painters.