Ad and marketing creatives

The Ascent of "Sherpa"

On May 29, 1953, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. Their achievement inspired hundreds of other climbers to attempt the arduous climb. It also brought a previously exotic word, "sherpa," into widespread use around the globe. Today we find "sherpa" far from its original range: in job descriptions and mobile apps, in government jargon and corporate trademarks, in aircraft names and fashion lingo.

"Sherpa" is an Anglicization of a Tibetan word that means "dweller in an eastern country"; the term originally applied only to the Sherpa people — Asian nomads who eventually settled in Nepal's highest regions — and their language. ("Sherpa" is also part of the personal name of many members of the ethnic group.) Expert mountaineers who are unusually well adapted to the mountains' thin air, Sherpa have climbed Himalayan peaks on their own and have served as guides, porters, and cooks to foreign climbers.  

Compare those genuine Sherpa with the new breed of sherpa described by Vickie Elmer in an October 4 article for Quartz:

They're not from Nepal. Their families cannot claim a connection to the 18 Sherpa clans. Yet a growing number of career coaches and consultants call themselves sherpas. …

The corporate types of "sherpas" work in Australia, France, the US, Switzerland and other countries. The job title shows up as a branding tool: strategy sherpa and ideas sherpas; on Twitter and LinkedIn there's the Gym Sherpa, the Human Resources Sherpa, the Tech Sherpa, and a startup sherpa or two, as well as quite a few social media sherpas. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development has two staff members with sherpa in their titles, including its chief of staff Gabriela Ramos.

The problem, writes Elmer, is that the term "sounds disrespectful to some Sherpas who object to their heritage being appropriated as a branding tool or title."

For better or worse, that horse may have left the barn long ago. (Literally: A racehorse named Sherpa had a career in the mid-1950s, and in this century, a gelding named Sherpa Tenzing raced in Australian and New Zealand.) According to the OED, the figurative use of "sherpa" to mean "guide" goes back to 1959, when a British author, Marshall Pugh, used it in a novel called The Chancer. ("What was the idea of trying that cliff? Did you fancy your chance as a sherpa?") But by then "sherpa" had already been climbing into the vernacular. In 1957, a Swiss company applied for a U.S. trademark for a watch brand called Sherpas; in 1964 an American company received trademark approval for Sherpa shoe soles.

Then there's faux-sheepskin "sherpa," a synthetic fabric that resembles the thick, dense wool that lines the traditional coats of Sherpa men and women. This "sherpa," employed by retailers from the Gap ("sherpa-collar jacket") to Saks Fifth Avenue ("sherpa cozy robe"), goes back a surprising five decades: a search of the New York Times database turns up regular citations in fashion and retail stories beginning in 1962. It appears to be a genericized trademark: In 1960, the Collins and Aikman Corp. received trademark protection for Sherpa "pile apparel fabric." The registration was cancelled in 2001.

That leaves more than a hundred trademarks with "sherpa" in the USPTO database, including Wedding Sherpa, Brand Sherpa, and Organic Sherpa. There are (or were) Sherpa motorcycles, Sherpa trucks, and Sherpa military planes — all from different companies. TechCrunch reports "a glut of personal-assistant apps named Sherpa." There is at least one venture-capital firm named Sherpa (Sherpa Foundry "prepares, guides and when necessary carries companies to success") and one named Sherpalo (which promises to "guide your company to the summit"). Crunchbase, TechCrunch's database of startup companies, lists Coupon Sherpa, Sherpa Design, Cloud Sherpa, Sherpa Partners, Pocket Sherpa, Tomato Sherpa, Sherpa Software, and Sherpa Consulting, among others. The trend isn't restricted to North America: Sherpa Invest is based in Brussels, and, a digital-assistant company ("You will have a team of Sherpas inside your phone who can make your life easier and anticipate your needs"), is in Bilbao. (.pa is the Panama country code.)

Lest you think all appropriations of "Sherpa" are frivolous or ephemeral, consider this: "Sherpa" is the official designation of any personal representative of a government leader to an international summit meeting such as the G7 or G8. The title has been used informally since the early days of the European Union and became official within the last decade. A G7 or G8 sherpa may have one or more "sous-sherpas" (under-sherpas) reporting to him or her.

It's not hard to see why "sherpa" is so popular in government and business, where the metaphors of "summit" and "reaching the top" are prevalent. Lately, too, there's been a lot of competition to come up with creative job titles — Chief Happiness Officer, Princess of Possibility, Brand Therapist, Marketing Evangelist — and "sherpa" may sound fresher, or tougher, than, say, "guru" or "ninja," which are also used extensively and which also derive from Asian languages (Hindi and Japanese, respectively), and less whimsical than Jedi (from Star Wars) or "rock star," as in "systems engineering rock star." (Yes, some people really do put "Jedi" or "rock star" on their business cards.)  

It's also easy to understand why an actual Sherpa might be irked by the casual transformation of his or her heritage into a metaphor. Not to discount that entirely legitimate reaction, but this isn't the first time English has appropriated an ethnic label into our cultural vocabulary. "Bohemian" originally meant only "a native of Bohemia"; today it has secondary meanings of "unconventional" or "artistic." Or consider "gypsy," from the informal (and derogatory, according to some people) term for the Roma people. In American theater lingo, a gypsy is a member of the chorus — always a dancer, never a singer — who moves from show to show. For decades, the musical-theater community has honored the hardest-working gypsy of the season with a brightly colored "Gypsy Robe."

Sherpa immigration to the United States has increased significantly in recent years, so we'll probably be hearing more discussion about the generic use of this ancient ethnic name. But I doubt we'll start censoring ourselves. "Sherpa" is simply too evocative and too much fun to say. Having scaled our vocabulary mountain, "sherpa" is likely to stay on top.

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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.