Me and the “M” word
By David Weinstock
Writing advertising is eerily similar to writing poetry, and not a bad way for a poet to make a living. Ad agencies and corporations hire copywriters because they need what a poet can supply — powerful language, carefully arranged for maximum memorability and emotional impact. Some days they’ll want you to write thousands of words, sometimes just a sentence, and occasionally only one, single, perfect word, exactly the right word — what we poets call le mot juste. (We poets drop French into the conversation whenever possible.)
At college I had been a straight-up English major. I never studied advertising; back then my college wouldn’t have dreamed of teaching such a useful skill. After graduation I moved to Boston and found odd jobs in even odder industries –puppetry and rare books, to name a few, and it wasn’t going anywhere. So I signed up for a two-month evening course in advertising copywriting at the Boston Center for Adult Education. From that I put together a portfolio, showed it around town, got hired, and worked for 10 years for a variety of agencies and corporations.
But then we moved to Maine, where ad agencies aren’t so thick on the ground, and finding work was difficult. Finally one day I heard that the L.L. Bean catalog needed a writer. It wasn’t going to be a perfect fit. Bean is a very outdoorsy company, and I’m an extremely indoorsy guy. But I had been a Boy Scout, and after that had been outdoors several other times that I could remember, and made the most of it. After thinking about it for three months they hired me.
Since I was the new kid, I didn’t get to write about Bean’s flagship products like boots or parkas or fly-fishing rods. Instead, they started me on women’s clothing, men’s accessories, housewares, and dog beds. And no sooner had I arrived than there was a crisis in the dog bed division.
L.L. Bean customers are the sort of people who not only own dogs, they give them Christmas presents. Bean’s dog beds were a big seller, and for a few extra dollars, each bed could be personalized with the dog’s name or monogram. Until that point in my sheltered life it had never occurred to me that a dog could have a monogram.
The current catastrophe had to do with the names. Every catalog featured a page or even a double-page spread of photos of dogs posed fetchingly on dog beds. But in the last catalog, one of the photos showed a dog who did not match the name on its bed. The dog, I seem to remember, was large and powerful and tough-looking, maybe a bull terrier, but the name embroidered into the bed was “Fluffy.” Or I may be remembering that wrong. It might have been a delicately groomed Pekinese perched on a bed marked “Butch.”
In either case, this incongruous photo had slipped right past all the editors and designers and proofreaders and got printed up and mailed out to a hundred thousand customers all over the world. Now, people take the L.L. Bean catalog very seriously. They are invested in it, they have feelings about it, feelings that nobody ever had about the Sears catalog or Lillian Vernon, feelings of almost religious intensity, made up of nostalgia and love for the outdoors and other noble emotions. Customers held us to a very high standard, and they weren’t slow to tell us that this dog bed gaffe was a terrible faux pas. (More French dressing there, just so you remember I’m a poet.)
The product manager was embarrassed, the art director was embarrassed. Some customers probably felt that the dog was embarrassed. And everybody wanted reassurance that nothing like this would ever happen again.
So the art director came over to my cubicle. She explained that she never knew in advance exactly what sort of dogs would show up at the photo shoot, but had to submit names to the embroidery department weeks ahead of time. What she needed from me, pronto, was a list of dog names that would not tie her down to anything specific about any dog — not its breed, gender, size, or coat — no Lassie, no SuzieQ, no Runt, no Patches. That way she could put any dog on any bed without causing cognitive dissonance in our dog-mad customers. Good names, she insisted, not Fido or anything boring.
The next day I delivered a dozen names exactly as ordered, nondescript yet nonboring. My favorite name on the list was “Moxie.” Moxie! Moxie means energy, guts, vigor, pizzazz, and it didn’t hurt that it was also the name of an old-fashioned herbal soft drink still popular in New England. I handed over the list and forgot all about it.
Moxie: an old-fashioned herbal soft drink still popular in New England
A few months later, the copy chief, looking unhappy, came over to my cube with a letter in his hand. It was a complaint from a lady in Baltimore; let’s call her Mrs. Goldberg. Mrs. Goldberg wanted to know how dare we put the word “moxie” in our catalog? Didn’t we know that it was a very offensive, insulting anti-Semitic slur? She was disappointed, she expected better from us, and she didn’t know if she could ever order from L.L. Bean again. Then she added, It just goes to show that there are obviously no Jewish people in your marketing department.
My boss asked me if I would kindly reply to Mrs. Goldberg’s letter.
What should I say to her? I already knew what the problem had been. There is a similar word, not “moxie” but “mocky,” and yes, it means “Jew” and not in a good way. But as slurs go, it was old, obsolete, virtually extinct, a fossil of a slur. I had never actually heard it said out loud, much less had it hurled at me by ruffians in cars driving past the synagogue — “Jew Boy!” was the best they could come up with. I had seen “mocky” in print only once, in a Philip Roth novel, in a highly-charged scene where Bubbles Girardi screams it along with other derisive names for Jews such as, you should pardon my French, “kike,” “hebe” and “sheeny.”
I knew all this, but decided to check my facts, which in those pre-Google days meant long-distance phone calls. I called an editor at the Anti-Defamation League, because nobody knows more about anti-Semitic slurs than they do. For good measure I also rang up the reference librarian at Brandeis University. Both of my sources laughed, and confirmed my hunch that nobody ever said “mocky” anymore, and that anyway “Moxie” was not remotely the same word, and that Mrs. Goldberg should not hold it against the company.
So I found a sheet of L.L. Bean stationery, with its bounding stag and leaping trout, and wrote the nicest letter to Mrs. Goldberg, apologizing for having upset her, and laying out my proofs of the sincere Yankee inoffensiveness of “Moxie.”
And for a finishing touch, to prove that there were indeed Jewish people — one, anyway — in the marketing department, I signed my name.