Why the name iPad has become such a joke

Before the official announcement of Apple’s iPad several different names were floated for the tablet including iTablet and iSlate. In the many months between the latest rounds of rumors (started in early 2009) and the actual announcement, the likelihood of iPad being the final name was hotly debated and often dismissed by people who were already saying it reminded them of maxipads. When the announcement came down nearly everyone I know either braced themselves for or gleefully awaited the feminine hygiene jokes to come.

However, a small minority of people I encountered didn’t understand why iPad immediately brought to mind maxipads. They pointed out that people use words like mousepad and notepad and even the phrase pad of paper every day without devolving into absorbancy jokes. So why is iPad funny? Having given this far, far too much thought, I’ve been able to identify three key reasons why I think it’s happening.

  1. As the MADtv skit showed, it’s long been funny to put the little i in front of words to make fun of Apple’s naming conventions. Sure, Apple has been very successful in branding the iProducts, and that’s part of why the jokes work. iPad seems like it should be a joke even though it’s not.
  2. Pad is a weak word. Just say it out loud: paaaaaad. That long a doesn’t help. Most other iProducts have pretty strong words after the little i. Pod, Mac, Work, Life. They have plosives and hard K sounds and short vowels. Pad needs words associated with it that sound strong or right in order to blend seamlessly into the vocabulary. Mousepad, Trackpad, Notepad, even CrunchPad. And though women refer to Always and etc. as just pads most of the time, that’s shorthand. The full word is Maxipad. There are just some words in English that sound somewhat weak on their own, and Pad is one of them. A weak word like this cannot support the little i, therefore the name (regardless of the jokes) just doesn’t feel strong or desirable.
  3. Regardless of the many other uses of the term pad, most of the time when someone asks for a pad they’re asking for a maxipad unless in context it makes far more sense that they’re asking for a pad of paper. Other than that, how many times have you used the word pad all by itself in normal conversation in a non-specialized context1? The little i is not the most important aspect of iPad, it’s so ubiquitous and familiar that, even as we say it, our minds and tongues are gliding right over it to the real word on the other side: Phone, Pod, Mac, Life, Work. That is the whole point of the little i. Therefore, the iPad is just basically Pad, and pads bring very few specific images to most American minds, and one of the prominent ones happens to be maxipads.

So there you have it. This is why I think the iPad name instantly became the butt of jokes or at least disappointment. Apple has some strong reasons for choosing iPad I am sure. I’m also sure they have some smart branding people whose job it is to think about these things. Maybe they had an off day? Maybe they’re all men. Maybe they thought that eventually people would stop tittering and just accept it, because none of the alternatives worked for whatever reason.

In the end, it doesn’t matter much. They’ve gone with iPad and have to stick with it. And we’ll have to live with it. As others have pointed out, the Wii encountered much the same reception upon release and, lo these many years later, we’ve all gotten used to it (or over it) and happily use them all the time. I’m sure the same will happen with the iPad. Still, I’m longing for a decal that I can stick on the back to turn my iPad into a maxiPad.

  1. i.e. it doesn’t count if your workplace uses something called a pad for everyday workplace operations. It also doesn’t count if you roleplay Star Trek on a regular basis. []
  • avirr

    I agree, “most of the time when someone asks for a pad they’re asking for a maxipad” — when they are female. Most guys I know don’t think of pad that way.

    Looks like Apple could use a more diverse set of decision-makers.

  • You’re going to need more evidence of why “pad” is a weak word than your own experience thinking it sounds funny when you say it too many times. It has the exact same consonants as “pod,” which means it has the same plosives as “pod.” And it has the same vowel sound as “mac.” I don’t know how long you regularly extend the A in “pad” but I know that I extend it seemingly as long as the O in “pod” or the A in “mac” as well.

    Also, I’m going to disagree that “most of the time when someone asks for a pad they’re asking for a maxipad.” There’s a strong gendered difference here; if the someone is a male, then most of the time they’re not asking for Maxipads. I understand that women ask for Maxipads more than men ask for non-Maxipads, but men also generally don’t hear women ask for Maxipads.

    So for me, and I would suspect for most men (especially single ones), Maxipad pads feature into discussions very rarely, and the Maxipad sense of pad falls far behind stationery, Thai food, game controllers, and ironically out-of-date apartments in usage.

    Men are digging a little deeper than women to ridicule the iPad in that way (much as many Americans who ridiculed the Wii were pulling on slang meanings that weren’t very common for them).

    • K T Bradford

      Why do I need more evidence that pad is a weak word? It just is in my opinion, and that’s what this post is: my opinion. I could go around and poll people, but I don’t think it would change our opinions. I stand firm, pad is a weak word when compared to pod or mac.

      Also, just because men don’t often ask for or talk about maxipads doesn’t mean that Most Of The Time cannot be applied here. How often do you use the word pad, just pad, on a regular basis? In combination with other words, sure. But not too many people are referring to the place they live as a pad without it being a one-off joke, no one goes to a Thai food place and asks for just Pad, and see how I mentioned the whole non-specific use thing up there? Some of us don’t game, and therefore do not have pads just lying around the house being talked about.

      • JMS

        I love (for remarkably small values of ‘love’) people who tell you you need ‘evidence’ for your opinions.

      • You’ve phrased your opinion as a universal argument, which is the basis on which I’m disagreeing. I have no doubt that this is why the name iPad has become such a joke for Tempest, but you’re trying to explain why in general, and two of your points are not as universal as you set them out to be.

        You think pad is a weak word. But your opinion has no connection to the phonetic properties of the word. The way you present it here, it appears as though you’re trying to argue that “pad” is an objectively weak word because of various linguistic properties. But you’ll need more evidence to argue that. You’ll probably also need to give a clearer definition of what defines a “weak” word or what kind of word can “support” an i- prefix. You don’t need to prove to me that you think “pad” is a weak word, but you do have to convince me to accept that as universal to some extent if you’re trying to explain why iPad has become a joke to other people.

        I’ll try to rephrase my objection to part 3; I’m going to work through it from scratch for my own benefit. I understand that, taking all American English conversation regardless of the gender of the speaker or the audience, most of the time “pad” refers to Maxipad. However, the actual experience is very different according to gender (or, I guess, according to a person’s relationship to menstruation, which is a highly gendered classification). Women hear and use “pad” without other modifiers very often, and it almost always means “Maxipad.” Men hear and use “pad” without a modifier far less often, but still enough for it to be considered common vocabulary, and it almost never means “Maxipad.”

        So evaluating “most of the time when someone asks for a pad they’re asking for a maxipad” from a personal perspective is different based on gender. By extension, then, this only partially explains the iPad jokes; it doesn’t explain why men who have very far less experience with maxipads and menstruation are making the same joke.

        Writing this out now, it occurs to me that you’re writing very much in the context of the previous post. But I’ve seen a lot of similar (but not quite similar; see next paragraph) jokes from men, and I don’t think point 3 applies to all of them.

        My personal reactions to the iPad jokes that have crossed my path (probably far fewer than you’ve seen), I know that my personal reaction to iPad jokes has been different based on the gender of the speaker. I read the jokes made by women to come from a place of “this is a part of my life that I find amusingly incongruous with Apple’s intent,” while I read most of the jokes made by men to come from a place of, “I hear this also refers to something that women put on their icky lady bits which makes it icky, which is incongruous with Apple’s intent.”

  • I personally didn’t think that the word “iPad” *wouldn’t* bring out absorbency jokes. My position was that Apple shouldn’t be held responsible for the immaturity of the marketplace.

    I think there are two related but separate issues. The first, which is more immediate to me, is whether the word “pad” should be taboo in mixed company because even reasonable people are conditioned to giggle when they hear the word in public. If I seem to be siding with Apple on this, it’s because I think this is the sort of thing that we should get over as a society. If someone wants to introduce a context-neutral instance of pads in larger society, I certainly don’t want to stop them. In time, we may be able to speak as frankly and plainly about women’s hygiene as we do about condom use (which is itself not great but a whole lot better than it was before the mid-80’s), and if we improve as a society then I will be as grateful to Apple as I am to C. Everett Koop for mailing the word “condom” to every household in the United States.

    The second facet, which Jonquil alludes to in the comments of the previous post, is whether the word “pad” is bad not because menstruation is unspeakable but because it is directly and personally unpleasant to a large fraction of the marketplace. Here, it is true that I don’t have a perspective, but I can see how someone would have some lingering emotional regret buying their servers from a Canadian company called CanSer. And this is a relevant point that didn’t occur to me. Time will tell whether the sales resistance dissipates when the iPad is launched or if there is to be some persistent bad will there.

    • K T Bradford

      Apple should be held responsible for their own branding, yes. If their branding leads to maxipad jokes, it’s their own fault. They made a choice, this is the result.

      I don’t think that pad should be taboo or considered dirty. That badness is associated with shaming women for their natural bodily functions, which is not cool. Making pad a less silly-associated word is fine with me.

      Still, I think pad is just a weak word in general. If it were a stronger type of word maybe this wouldn’t even be an issue.

      • I wonder if the “weak” words work to a product’s favor when you say them a hundred times a day without realizing you’ve done it. I’m thinking about “Palm”, which is a weak word even before the half-silent L makes some of us half-swallow the end. But I think it had a much more profound impact on our technical language and life than “Handspring”. I don’t quite follow your argument that “pod” is significantly stronger than “pad”, but it certainly far overcome by “Zune”. I doubt Apple has any regrets on the way that conflict settled out.

        And now my brain is filled with Graham Chapman saying “Pad? Pad? Dreadful, tinny sort of word. Gooooooooone.”

    • People no longer make Nintendo Wii jokes. Time makes the product name familiar.

    • bemusedoutsider

      “because even reasonable people are conditioned to giggle when they hear the word in public”

      Which people? Evidence?

  • Do you think it’ll work with Sprint’s WiMAX network?

    • K T Bradford

      Every time I’ve heard anyone say WiMAX they’ve always pronounced it Whymax. Of course, I can’t say for sure if I’ve ever heard anyone from Sprint say it :)

  • Well, I agree with the previous poster that if you’re trying to analyze this phonologically as a kind of objective criticism, the criticism doesn’t work very well. Linguistically, “pod” and “pad” have very similar values. The consonants are identical and the vowels are similar, without getting into the details. So if “pod” is strong enough in the mouth and to the ear, then “pad” should be too.

    I’m really tired of the darned menstrual product jokes. Sigh. I do feel like there’s a shaming element involved, and it’s irritating.

    That said, I don’t really like the product name that much, but I’m also not really impressed by the product. I was hoping it’d have decent graphical input abilities and that they’d work with Adobe a little more–their artist and graphic designer user base is very large, so I was hoping we’d be able to run full versions of Illustrator and Photoshop (and Painter) on it, and use a stylus. But no. So, oh well.

    However, I wasn’t that impressed by the iPhone at first, and now I have an iPod Touch and love it to piecs (although EGADS is that name irritating and cumbersome!). So we’ll just have to see how both the name and the product play out, I think.

    • K T Bradford

      I called it the iTouch for a long time before I realized I was wrong, then that just made Apple seem wronger.

      I disagree on the whole pod vs. pad thing, though I’m sure it’s subjective to personal tastes. I think pod is a plenty strong word with the short o because a short o doesn’t lay there like a short a does, at least not in my accent. I realize that in other accents this is not the same.

  • bemusedoutsider

    Everyone who ASKS for a ‘pad’?

    Except half the population, ie males.
    And females under puberty.
    And females past menopause.
    And females who use tampons, cups, etc.
    And females who use rags, socks, paper towels, etc.

    Now that’s down to a lot less than ‘everyone’, who EVER asks for a box of pads. Now subtract those users who say things like ‘sanitary napkins’ or ‘Modess’ or other brand name without a noun.

    Also, how many users who might ask for a ‘box of pads’ would ask for ‘a pad’? In a store you ask for a ‘box of’. In a restroom you just put a quarter in the slot. So who exactly is going to ask whom for ‘A pad’? Maybe occasionally — but sure not ‘everyone who asks’.

    So how is ‘a box of pads’ going to get confused with ‘an iPad’? Nobody asks for ‘a box of iPads.’ Sanitary napkins come in boxes; ebook readers don’t, unless you’re a big box store.

    • K T Bradford

      let me guess, you’re a guy.

  • bemusedoutsider

    Google finds 76,000,000+ occurances of ‘pad’. I scrolled through 10 screens of hits with no mention of your sort of ‘pad’ except one joke site and wikipedia which lists ‘maxipad’ as one meaning among about 30.

    Dunno when your meaning might turn up as a hit; I got tired of reading at 10 screens.

    Why some people think it’s a joke? Because some people want to insult Apple. Because some people want to insult women. Because some people have no real sex life and free associate instead.

    • K T Bradford

      let me guess, you’re an Apple fanboy.