For two years, the Canadian brewery Hell's Basement has sold a New Zealand hopped pale ale so light that it's named Huruhuru, a word meaning "feather" in te reo Māori—or so the brand thought. Though that word can mean "feather" and "fur," huruhuru is used colloquially to refer to, well, pubic hair, as Māori TV presenter Te Hamua Nikora explained in a recent Facebook post.
Hell's Basement wasn't the only company to make this translation gaffe: the Huruhuru leather store in Wellington, New Zealand—which also hoped to reference wool, feathers, and fur—also came under scrutiny this month. And as the Guardian pointed out, this beer news comes almost two years after Coca-Cola's big New Zealand language blunder, when its attempt to merge te reo Māori and English resulted in vending machine slogans that effectively stated "Hello, Death."
Meanwhile, Eater DC recently announced the opening of a new wine bar called Barkada, named for the Tagalog word for a gang of friends. While the word in this case was used correctly, the fact that neither the bar concept (European food and wine) nor its owners had any ties to the Philippines prompted backlash across parts of Filipino social media. Barkada's owners chose the name in part because it included the word "bar," and to critics, the flippant usage watered down cultural context.
At best, these situations are confusing and nonsensical. Why name a beer in a way that could conjure the mental image of a furry crotch, and why set expectations for Filipino culture with a space that doesn't serve anything Filipino? At worst, however, they're examples of a tendency for people to cherry-pick from cultures outside their own for profit, recognition, or branding strategies without the due diligence of research or actual cultural engagement.
"The use of the word Huruhuru for your leather shop or beer IS NOT OFFENSIVE, it’s STUPID," Nikora wrote. "What IS offensive is your feeling of entitlement to use it…. No matter which of its meanings you think you should be allowed to take." While not every example of cultural appropriation is equally problematic, these situations show how ignorant this behavior can be. When people fail to go the extra step beyond adopting elements from languages that aren't their own, those cultural trappings can appear to be meaningless and misinformed attempts to profit off of these communities.
There is an easy solution to avoid these situations. For entrepreneurs looking to name businesses or products in a language they don't understand and from a culture which has no relation to whatever it is they're marketing, the answer is to maybe just not do that. English alone has "at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct" words, per the Oxford English Dictionary, so surely something else will suffice. And what does it say about the people involved in the development process that these ideas made it as far as they did without intervention?
Should one feel inextricably committed to branching out of one's vernacular, there are ways to do it with more success, and that involves actually engaging and learning from the cultures being borrowed. "You may have the best of intentions," Keesa Ocampo, vice president of Filipino Food Movement, told HuffPo regarding Barkada. "But equally important is the research and marketing of all of the different elements of your business." Had Barkada actually included Filipino elements in its business model, the response would likely have been different.
Hell's Basement co-founder Mike Patriquin apologized to anyone who felt disrespected by the beer's name in a statement, and added, "We acknowledge that we did not consider the commonplace use of the term huruhuru as a reference to pubic hair, and that consultation with a Māori representative would have been a better reference than online dictionaries." Indeed, as Māori language teacher Hēmi Kelly told RNZ, the leather store and beer situations could have been avoided. While some companies had used te reo Māori correctly, Kelly said, others did not get guidance from language consultants. With consultants so easy to find through Google, "I don't see why we should be having these issues," he said.
With its Yelp score tanked, Barkada has announced that it will change its name. Likewise, Hell's Basement will rebrand the beer. But having already taken a hit from COVID-19, the leather store cannot currently afford to change its name—the pubic hair connotation will continue on.