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Hey Brands, Cool It With the Punny Names

Can you get through this piece without groaning to death?

Young woman sticking tongue out. Photo: Tim Robberts/Getty Images

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How do you know when something is a dad joke? Because it’s a(p)parent!

If you just rolled your eyes, shook your head, or wondered aloud why the hell you’re reading this, you’ve come to the right place. If you cackled, slapped your knee, or vowed to keep that one in your back pocket for this year’s office holiday party, allow me to explain myself: I don’t hate puns, or at least I haven’t hated puns. Historically speaking, you could even say that puns are one of my kinks. But as someone who’s professionally obligated to spend my days looking at clothing on the internet, the modern convention of twee alliteration, portmanteaus, and other wordplay in e-commerce settings is... testing my devotion.

As online selling platforms continue to make brick-and-mortar stores obsolete, it’s not surprising that retailers should use all available tools to separate their brand from that of competitors — but ModCloth, Nasty Gal, and others’ impulses to embellish even product names in this particular way feels counterproductive. These names are the worst of both worlds, neither informative like, say, ”Raglan Cable-Knit Pullover” or ”Cord Jumpsuit in Berry with Tie Strap,” nor kind of thrilling because, while wholly uninformative, they at least maybe share your legal name.

Common iterations on the trend include puns that, if nothing else, indicate some characteristic of the item in question (see: the “Tulle of the Trade Skirt” or the “Glad to Sheer It Mesh Bodysuit”), plus search-unfriendly alliteration and internal rhymes (see: the “Aspiring Artist” and “Smoothie Enthusiast” dresses, which — just to confuse you a little more — are the same dress in different colors). Compounding all of this winking and finger-gunning is a constant, cloying thread of twee imagery, like formally greeting people in old-timey train stations, enjoying not just any cool, caffeinated beverages, but artisan-made ones specifically, and being either beguiled by bookstores or inciting the beguilement of your fellow sapiosexuals, it’s not entirely clear. And yet, however infantilizing it feels to be targeted by such caricatured marketing — I’m no man’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I am certainly no Walmart subsidiary’s “‘Admire Your Quirk’ Ponte Pants in ‘Folksy’” — such descriptions aren’t even the absolute most offensive squash in the punny product names cornucopia.

Where things really go from assonant to asinine are the product names that take a saying with already-dubious relations to the garment in question — for instance, “generous to a fault” — then replace one of the words with something similar-sounding and equally irrelevant, like “malt.” Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The “Generous to a Malt Cardigan.” ModCloth’s “Homecoming ‘Round the Mountain Sweater” is a rib-knit cowl-neck top with no varsity letters or Western-inspired fringe to be found. The “Oh Say Can Museum Dress” comes in three different florals plus ghost- and detective-related prints, but no adorkable stars and stripes or dinosaur bones and sarcophagi options. The “Go Down in Mystery Top” might be an homage to both Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and an entire literary genre, or it could just be a reference to glory holes. It’s a slippery slope (hope/rope/scope/dope/mope/trope).

The success of a pun depends on two things: its obvious relationship to the topic(s) at hand, and its scarcity relative to normal, pun-less conversation. I know I wouldn’t want to hang out with the “dads” in my life (including my actual, beloved dad) if puns dominated their speech as thoroughly as they dominate the sites in question — and to be honest, if any of them began swapping similar-sounding but contextually nonsensical words into their abundance of puns, I’d start to wonder whether a CAT scan was in order.

And that’s why I’m here — not to rag on the very nice people who work at ModCloth, Nasty Gal, and beyond, but to express my concern and encourage each company to stick with their clothing-selling strengths. Please, retailers, don’t completely ruin puns and clothes for me; leave the dad jokes to the dads.