Monday, May 15, 2006

How to Pronounce the Pentax "*ist"

Part One: How Do You Say *ist? or How I Learned to Stop Worrying...

Interestingly, three years on since the first *ist camera was introduced and the griping began, this question is still lurking around. Customers, reading about the *ist before they hear about it, can't decide how they should pronounce the word. It may seem kooky to go off on a tangent about the name *ist, but it's nothing compared to the amount of introspection parents give baby names, let alone pet names. So let's figure out what's going on with the name Pentax chose for its progeny. You see an asterisk followed by a common suffix. It doesn't roll off your tongue. It's not in the FAQ. You're sweating. What do you do?


Okay, before you complain that it's a pretentious name, with punctuation that's hardly ever used except for footnotes, you get flummoxed, and you want to blame Pentax for irritating you... hold your horses.

Officially, from Pentax, it's pronounced issed, (-ĭst).

As in "artist", but rhyming with "blissed." You're just to say, "ist D" or "ist DL" and forget about the asterisk. But if you say it after Pentax, you'll get something that sounds like, "Pentaxist," which isn't bad either.

Now try this, "Pentaxist D. Pentaxist DS2. Pentaxist DL."

Are you starting to relax just a little? No? Maybe you're having thoughts that if you ask for an "issed" people won't understand, or if you say "Pentaxist", you're going to be admitting you're a Pentaxist, someone who uses a Pentax (not easy to do in a room of Canon or Nikon users). But belonging to a group is pretty much the connotation you're intended to have. That's right, the name isn't just a trademark like "Tide" or "Clorox"... it strikingly asks you to accept the idea that a user of a product is also a product of the product. Whoa!

Now some of you might be even more annoyed after reading that. "Hey," you're saying, "I don't like a company trying to act conceited, practically begging me to think about grammar, philosophy, and post-modern consumer theory! It reminds me of tests and..." Again. Hold your horses. It really is a complicated name concept, but I don't think it's meant to antagonize you, it's supposed to include you.

Part Two: Figuring Out a Name

It's been said that when spring-returned reflex mirror designs for SLRs became really popular in the 1940's, one of the names the Nippon Optical Company considered for their cameras was "Pentax," before they ultimately chose "Nikon." The Asahi Optical Company, meanwhile, went with the name "Asahiflex" for their SLRs, a conjunction of Asahi with the term "flex" to indicate the camera's mirror relfex return system. Lots of other companies were gluing "flex" onto the name brand of their cameras at the time. But in 1957 when Asahi launched a major new SLR design with a pentaprism design, they named it the "Pentax" ("Penta" meant to indicate the pentaprism and the suffix "x" for the reflex design). The camera proved so popular Asahi renamed their company Asahi Pentax, now known simply as Pentax (more on that history can be found here).

Camera nomenclature is usually filled with plenty of allusions to poetic vocabulary for light and optical engineering. Famously, the Canon Eos is named after the Greek goddess of the dawn and morning. By using a name borrowed from classic tradition, or even just hinting at something European in nature, some companies are hoping to make a brand appear more refined and impart a sophisticated cache that will be appealling in many countries where English isn't the first language. Sometimes it's meant to overtly signal a special attention to detail in production. Recently, the Cosina resurrection of the Voigtlander name brand underscores this objective. Pentax, however, had not assigned another name identity since the Spotmatic to its SLR designs until the *ist was announced. The consumer point and shoots (Optio, etc) did have distinguishing names, but the SLRs almost always followed a simple numerical or alphabetical pattern of usually two or three characters to indicate the nature of the model (645, KX, ME, MZ-S, etc.).

People feel strongly about branding names. Sometimes a name can really get people growling, like the Nintendo Wii, which sounds, uh, a wee bit inappropriate in English. Pentax, choosing to imply that their product is suited for everybody, didn't want to marginalize consumers the way most camera companies tend to alienate technophobes. So, Pentax's first step was to acknowledge that we're interested in everything, we photograph anything we can, and no one thing characterizes a typical Pentax user except the camera.

Part Three: ...And Love The *ist

The suffix "ist" has a long history of being the formal way we imply a person or object belongs to a group. It makes the root word characterize any subject or person--a German, French and Greek attribute. I'm sure Pentax could have chosen to call their cameras the "Pentax Groupie" but somehow I don't think that's what they were striving for. The truth is that the asterisk plays an integral part of the name branding because its the wild card symbol for any word you might want to use. By giving you some authority in the meaning of the name, you could even think that Pentax considers the *ist camera name to represent their post-modern philosophy in the post-film-only world. For example, try substituting a subject that means something important to you:

* = Art. Nature. Love. Money. Sex. Cars. Robots. Athletics. Writing. Children. Bugs. Business. Decoration. Architecture. Sewing. Parties. Activism. Flowers. Skiing. Women. Men. Dogs. Cats. Etc.

The list is enormous. But not many of them sound that good with "ist" tagged onto the end. Try "Aluminum Canoe-ist." Nope, doesn't work. Hence the asterisk. This inclusiveness would appear to be the reasoning behind choosing *ist as a new brand identity at Pentax, and it's a bold departure, but one you'd expect from a company whose cameras still support the original 'K' bayonet mount from over 30 years ago. I have to wonder how the name was pitched at German corporate meetings and if *ist sounds better to Japanese ears spoken in Japanese, as "essed".


But as devil's advocate, you're still irritated. "This is too much of a phony-balony advertising copywriter's high concept hogwash," you argue. It reminds of you of "del.icio.us" and other silicon valley branding schemes that are getting old fast. This definitive way to refer to the camera isn't making you feel comfortable yet? Well, unless Pentax changes the name for new models released this year or next, you'll have to get used to it.

This is how assorted people have been handling it in the United States: some refer to the asterisk as a "star" (to either conserve syllables in tech jargon or to help other people who don't know what an asterisk is, I guess) and say, "Star-ist". The worst is P *ist, but, uh, I'll let you figure that one out on your own. Another pronunciation is "Eye-ist." I don't know how this one came up, but it's probably an intuitive grab to describe the asterisk and sound more sensible. What photographer isn't an "eye-ist"? So, in fact, that's probably my favorite. Mind you, if you like that, Actor Jason Lee naming his baby boy "Pilot Inspektor" probably seems normal.

So, I'll just stick with Pentax *ist for now. And for the record, working on a mac let's me name folders "*ist" just fine.

Links: "ist" definition, Wild card asterisk definition

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading! :-)

//peter

sean laffey said...

I always call it the STAR ist,,sound a bit like the Tsar of cameras.

Annoyingly though the asterix on computer keybaords often gets yiou into no-mansd land when surfing as the * is a genral symbol for everything and thus for nothing specific.

Ricky said...

Maybe people know that the asterisk is derived from the greek work for star. It's a logical definition of the asterisk symbol. Just a thought.

The Keeper Of The Records said...

I'm not convinced that the name means much at all. It's what the camera does and more importantly what the photographer does with the camera that is important.

I'm a died-in-the-wool Pentax user and would rather just get on with taking shots that I like than arguing the merits of individual camera's.

Just for the record my cheapo Pentax *ist DL2 runs ring around my mates Canon D30 and L lenses. But then again he's frightened to use it. Too many buttons and too expensive to break it. Apparently

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