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Phood for Thought

What's for dinner tonight? How about Cheez-It crackers topped with Cheez Whiz, followed by a salad of Imitation Krab and Vegetable Skallops sprinkled with Bac'n Bites? For your main course, we have a tempting selection of Chik'n Cutlets, Chick'n Scallopini, Turk'y, Stakelets, and Wyngz. And be sure to leave room for dessert: we're serving Kandy Kakes and Froots smoothies!

And as the previous paragraph shows, it's possible to subsist in the United States on unconventionally spelled foodstuffs. (Yes, those are all real brand names.) Knowing exactly what you're subsisting on, however, requires some knowledge of why the names are misspelled and what the misspellings mean. Sometimes it's not as simple or straightforward as you might think.

Let's start with Cheez-It, one of the oldest brands on the menu. When the square, cheese-flavored crackers were introduced in 1921, "Cheese it — the cops!" was a popular slang expression. According to Michael Quinion, who monitors English words and idioms for his World Wide Words website, "cheese it" — meaning either "stop it" or "run away" — originated among criminals in early-19th-century Britain and surfaced about a hundred years later in the United States. The "cheese" in "cheese it" may have been a variation of "cease." O. Henry used the expression in "The Easter of the Soul," a short story published in 1908: "The defense of Mr. Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of 'Cheese it — the cop!'"

And the Z in Cheez-It? The historical record is silent about the namers' intentions, but we do know that altered commercial spellings have been around for a long time. They were especially popular in the 1920s. Louise Pound, a founding editor of American Speech, wrote in 1925, in the journal's first issue, about a number of "simplified or novel spellings" then popular as brand names, including Shur-On eyeglasses, Holsum bread, and Kolor Bak hair dye. A phonetic spelling like "cheez" can give a brand name the advantage of distinctiveness and memorability. What it can't do is confer legal protection: trademark law is based on a word's sound, not its spelling. "Cheez is cheese, no matter how you spell it," says trademark lawyer Jessica Stone Levy, who writes the trademark blog Beauty Marks.

That's why the trademark filing for Cheez Kisses, another brand of cheese-flavored snacks, includes the disclaimer "No claim is made to the exclusive right to use 'cheese' apart from the mark as shown." And the filing for Cheez Whiz, a spreadable cheese product first sold in 1952, makes it clear that "the word 'cheez' is disclaimed apart from mark 'Cheez Whiz.'" Cheez-It, Cheez Kisses, and Cheez Whiz are registered to three different companies, Kellogg, Gold Rush Brands, and Kraft.

In fact, "cheez" gets around quite a bit. Cheez Doodles, a snack food from Wise Foods, has cartoon mascots called the Cheez Dudes. Cheezedge (Kraft), Cheez Boost (Land O'Lakes), and Cheez-All (McCormick) are competing brands of cheese flavorings. Cheez Pups is a brand of dog treats made by Del Monte; Bac'n'Cheez is another brand of dog treats from a different company, Old Mother Hubbard. (We'll get to "bac'n" in a bit.) And this is probably the place to mention I Can Has Cheezburger, the four-year-old Internet empire of LOLcat photos with idiosyncratically spelled captions and no food products at all. (Yet.)

Although cheez is cheese, legally speaking, in a branding sense it's not exactly cheese, just cheese-ish. The misspelling signals — by convention, not by government or industry fiat — that the original food has been tinkered with in some way: processed, powdered, extruded, or otherwise manipulated. (Of course, cheese itself is manipulated milk, but that's another story.) When we press the dispenser on a can of Cheez Whiz, we don't expect a block of pungent Roquefort to be magically reconstituted on the plate. Similarly, the cheez in I Can Has Cheezburger tells us to prepare for Teh Silly (to use the vernacular).

The cheez formula — a slightly tweaked spelling signifying slightly or even substantially processed ingredients — also applies to Tastykake, founded in Philadelphia in 1914. The company originally sold traditional cakes for 10 cents apiece, but soon branched out into packaged snacks with names like Krimpets and Kreamies and recipes you probably couldn't duplicate at home. The K-spellings are a cheerful wink that says "Our products are like cakes, but more fun (and with a longer shelf life)." (In her American Speech article, Louise Pound listed many brand names that substituted K for C, including Konkrete-bilt, Klever Klippers, and Kiddie Kars. "Its rise in favor seems to be bound up with the late agitation for simplified spelling, or the on-coming tide of interest in phonetics," she wrote. "Simplified orthography for advertising is perhaps the most important legacy of the defunct spelling reform movement.")

With other misspelled brands we enter more ambiguous terrain. Take Bac'n. Bac'n Chips (registered as a trademark in 1975) is a brand of pork rinds — a baconesque product that originated with a dead pig. Bac'n Smackers (2009) are dog treats that also have a porcine heritage. But Bac'n Buds (1972) are a "bacon flavor vegetable protein product" and Bac'n Bites (2003) are "bacon flavored TVP [textured vegetable protein] bits" — in other words, no animals were harmed. Without reading the labels, you might not know what you were buying.

The same goes for Chik'n, curiously enough. The word can mean what the US Patent and Trademark Office calls "further processed chicken" — actual poultry bits reprocessed into other foods. But it can also mean a vegetarian chicken substitute. No written regulations specify these meanings; they're simply a sort of branding shorthand.

Chik'N Jrs, Chik'n Giggles, and Dip'n Chik'n all originated with live chickens. (The first two products are sold by Brakebrush Brothers, the third by Pilgrim's Pride.) But the chik'ns of Morningstar Farms, which specializes in vegetarian replicas of meat items, are a different animal — or non-animal. Morningstar sells "tender, juicy Chik'n products" such as Chik'n Nuggets, Chik'n Veggie Patties, and Original Chik'n Tenders, made from textured vegetable protein plus water, food color, spices, and some flour to hold the stuff together.

Meanwhile, Worthington Loma Linda, a vegetarian-foods competitor of Morningstar's, sells frozen Fried Chik'n with Gravy. Another competitor, Quorn, sells "meatless and soy-free" Chik'n Patties, Southwestern Chik'n Wings, and Cranberry & Goat Cheese Chik'n Cutlets. Boca, a pioneer in veggieburger cuisine, offers six kinds of chik'n, including Spicy Chik'n Patties Made with Non-GMO Soy. Gardein ("garden + protein") spells it Chick'n, as in Chick'n Fillets, Chick'n Marsala, Chick'n Scallopini, and other apostrophe'd vegetarian delicacies.

To sum up: Chik'n (or chick'n) can be chicken-derived or just chicken-ish. It can come from any of a dozen or so unrelated companies. The only thing the odd spellings guarantee is a certain degree of unnatural-ness.

Turk'y, on the other hand, is never turkey: it's made from mushrooms (or "mycoprotein") and sold by Quorn in configurations such as Turk'y Roast and Turk'y Burger.

Over in the seafood department, Krab may mean "some sort of white fish shaped into crablike shapes, with added flavorings" — as in Peter Pan Seafoods' Imitation Krab — or it may mean something made with walnuts and breadcrumbs, with added flavorings, as in a vegan Krab Kakes recipe I found at AllRecipes.com.

Then there's "boneless Wyngz," a product from DiGiorno that's in a category of its own. On the Pizza & Wyngz package, Wyngz are described as "white meat chicken fritters." As for why the word is spelled that way, DiGiorno has a ready answer:

Our new DIGIORNO® Pizza & Wyngz include "Wyngz" that are boneless cuts of all-white meat chicken breast, lightly breaded, and ready to bake. Now, if you're familiar with chicken anatomy, you probably already know the breast is not part of the wing. T hat's the reason we don't call our Wyngz... wings. And once you try them, the only thing you'll be calling them is amazing.

Indeed, this appears to be the sole instance of a federal regulator stepping in to clear things up, spelling-wise. In December 2010, the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Information Service published a five-point, 277-word statement about the use of "wyngz" as "a fanciful term on poultry product labeling." The summary: the meat has to be white chicken, the product can't contain any wing meat, and "no other misspellings are permitted." As for other misspelled food products — cheez, chik'n, and all the rest — FSIS has no specific policies, according to a representative who answered my email. "We evaluate each on a case-by-case basis," he added.

I was curious to see what another federal agency, the US Patent and Trademark Office, had to say about "wyngz." But when I searched the online database I found only one "Wyngz" trademark — and it isn't registered to DiGiorno. It's registered to HorseSportz in Scottsdale, Arizona, and it's for a brand of saddle pads.

Bon app├ętit!


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 25th 2011, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
All those "K" words reminded me of the Kinks, who have always made much of that letter -- "Kinda Kinks" and "The Kinks Konspiracy" being two examples.
Thursday August 25th 2011, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
We always reckoned that orthographical coyness, like "creme" or "cheez," was a manufacturer's implicit notification that These are not the foods you're looking for, so to speak.
Thursday August 25th 2011, 4:28 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
None of these brand name food items are yam mi to me, so is the writing of the brand names.
Ms. Nancy worked so hard to introduce the brand names, however that won't change the tastes of these foods.
Actually, fancy names and colored raping are these food items only substance. I'm not fond of any of these items.
Friday August 26th 2011, 6:40 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Turk'y? Suddenly I'm not hungry!
Friday August 26th 2011, 2:50 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Then there's Chick-fil-A, which is a registered trademark. Suddenly I'm hungry!

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