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February 01, 2011  |  Tempest in (on) a coffee cup  |  10291 hit(s)

As about just everyone on the planet knows, the logo for Starbucks is a mermaid. The coffee lady has gone through a number of transformations, from this:

To the latest design:

As an aside, just for fun I want to note that this latter design is very cleverly used to decorate Starbucks HQ in Seattle (the erstwhile Sears store-cum-warehouse), with the sea-lady peeking out from the top of the building's "tower":

Ok, so, the question du jour is where this logo came from. Corporate mythology has it that the design was "originally derived from a twin-tailed siren in an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut." Sounds plausible, right?

Not to everyone. As recounted in the Wall Street Journal blog, of all places, a graduate student at Yale who writes a blog named Got Medieval thought this sounded fishy (haha), because, for one, "there’s no such thing as a 16th-century Norse woodcut."

Long story short (i.e., edited), ...
The twin-tailed siren isn’t from a “marine book” at all. She’s from an early German printed book, Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina, a translation of Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Melusine. Melusine tells the story of how the first male of the Lusignan line, Raimondin, met a beautiful woman at an enchanted fountain in the forest. After extracting a promise that he never try to find her on a Saturday, this woman, Melusine, gave him all her love and great wealth as well, promptly married him, and later bore him eleven sons. Naturally, Raimondin couldn’t leave well enough alone, tracked her down on Saturday and found her back at the magic fountain where she had reverted to her true form, a twin-tailed siren or serpent-lady.

So the Starbucks mermaid isn't a mermaid, she's a twin-tailed siren. And she most definitely did not come from a "16th-century Norse woodcut."

The Got Medieval blog calls this The Other Starbucks Mermaid Cover-Up. (If you compare the old and new logos, you'll deduce what the first cover-up was.) The entry expends a fair bit of scholarship on this issue and makes a case that the official story is, um, misremembered at best:
If medieval studies teach us anything, it’s to be extra cautious with origin stories. Just as there was almost certainly no conveniently named Trojan refugee Brutus who founded Britain (nor Turkus Turkey, nor Francus France), no sword in the stone that elected a Welshman the king of all England, no Donation given by Emperor Constantine of all his earthly power to the Catholic Pope, and no shape-changing serpent lady Melusine to sleep with the Count of Anjou, there was almost certainly no “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut” floating around Seattle in 1971. It’s far more likely that three businessmen and coffee afficianados searching for a symbol for their new coffee shop in Pike Place Market turned to the American edition of The Dictionary of Symbols — which, incidentally, was first published in that same year, 1971. But the urge to clean things up and make them more inspiring than they were is simply irresistible where one’s origins are concerned.
The number of people who feel a certain sense of vindication at having this cover-up exposed is, I imagine, fairly modest. Still, I do have sympathy for Carl S. Pyrdum, III, the stated author of the Got Medieval blog, who says he started the blog "as a place to gripe about how the mainstream media does not understand the Middle Ages." A significant number of posts on the Language Log, for example, are gripes about how the mainstream media (and people at large) don't understand language.

And really, anyone who's an expert at something can find it exasperating to encounter the largely uninformed ramblings of the rest of humanity about the expert's beloved field. Of course, that rarely results in a chance to rant about a major corporation and then have the WSJ pick up the story. So kudos to Got Medieval for this one.

Hat tip to Nancy Friedman, who passed along to me the info originally provided to her by John Ochwat.