Monday, January 10, 2011

Purveying a message

Passing one of about a dozen delis and convenience stores lining my 1/3-mile walk from Penn Station in New York to the office, I found myself mulling the signage of one of them:
"Purveyor of fine foods and coffee"
What came to mind was Ben Franklin's tale of a young hatmaker designing a sign for his shop, and seeking marketing advise from friends:

He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats...He struck it out. A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats!' says his next friend; 'why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed,...rather [uselessly] as there was painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson," with the figure of a hat subjoined."
Young Thompson may have thus missed a marketing opportunity -- unless that pictured hat was very finely wrought, like a glass of beer in a Guiness poster add. "Purveyor," today at least, sounds archaic, and thus illustrious, recalling the old boast on certain Brit products of my youth (and still?), "by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen." It's a strange transmutation, since it drives from Old French "porveoir," which in turn comes from Latin "providere." "Purveyor" sounds tonier than "provider," doesn't it? 

Concision isn't everything.

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