the secret of zumba

There is no doubt that Zumba Fitness owes its success in significant part to its name. The story goes that the company’s co-founders Alberto “Beto” Perez, Alberto Aghion and Alberto Perlman, aka “three Albertos”, were deliberately trying to find a name which rhymes with “rumba”:

Their first stumbling block came when they went to trademark Rumbacize, a play off Jazzercise and rumba, which means to party in Spanish. They discovered Rumbacize had been covertly registered by the owner of a fitness club where Perez taught classes. So the three Albertos went to a Houston’s restaurant in North Miami Beach and brainstormed.

“Bumba. Cumba. We said everything trying to find something that rhymed with Rumba,” Perlman recalled. “Wumba. That sounded like something for pregnancy.”

They were getting nervous. Nothing sounded right.

“Then we got to Zumba,” Perlman said. “That’s it. We were excited.”

A nice story, that. They had to go all way down the alphabet until the last letter did the trick. The Zumba Fitness’ Trademark Usage Guide goes as far as to claim that

THE WORD ZUMBA® DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING

The word ZUMBA® was coined by our company, and is an arbitrary or fanciful word we selected as the original brand name that identifies Zumba Fitness’ dance fitness programs and related products.

But did three Albertos really coin a new word? Of course not. They should have been well aware that there is a word zumba in Spanish. As a noun, it means “teasing”, “bashing”, or “beating”; zumba is also a form of the verb zumbar “to buzz”, “to hit”, “to tease”, “to nick”, or, surprise surprise, “to have sex”. Curiously enough, Zumba Fitness LLC urges us to never use the word “Zumba” as a noun or verb, only as an adjective. This is an absurd demand as it goes contrary to the already established usage. (“Are you going to Zumba?”, “Let’s Zumba” etc.)

But why is “Zumba” such a good name? I think the secret is that (a) it is short and (b) it is easy to pronounce. In particular, the sounds in “Zumba” are organised this way:

⊏⊔⊓⊏⊔

(where ⊏ stands for a consonant, ⊔ a vowel, and ⊓ a nasal consonant). This pattern pervades the names of music and/or dance styles such as banda, bomba, changa, conga, cumbia, danza, ganga, funky, landó, limbo, lundu, mambo, mento, punta, punto, rumba, samba, semba, songo, tambu, tango, timba, tumba and zamba, to name a few. So it is exotic and in the same time vaguely familiar. It has a jaunty feel about it. It sounds like a name of a cute animated creature: Bambi, Dumbo, Simba, Pingu, Rango

It is more important to be easily pronounceable than exotic. There is no need to travel far: we are literally surrounded by ⊏⊔⊓⊏⊔ words and names. Many languages, including English, favour them. There’s bound to be a neighbour called Cindy, Sandy, Mandy, Randy, Wendy or Monty. They eat candy or drink shandy. They talk about weather: it’s windy today, it will be rainy tomorrow. We like these words so much that we join them together in reduplications: hanky-panky, mingle-mangle, mumbo-jumbo, namby-pamby. It does not mean that if we like the name we have to like what the name stands for. (We may love pandas but hate mambas.) The reverse, however, is not true: the good cannot be given repelling name. (Even if Willy Wonka and his Oompa-Loompas annoy us, there is no way we’ll fall in love with Vermicious Knids.)

Fancy going to Zumba tonight? You can’t say “no” to that. Wanna try Bokwa? Not so sure. What about Piloxing? Definitely not, it’s a horrible word.

A handy property of a good name is its ability to form nicely sounding compounds and portmanteaux. I would argue that the conditions (a) and (b) are necessary although not sufficient. It comes as no surprise that ⊏⊔⊓⊏⊔ words are good at that. Examples include Mamborama (“mambo” + “panorama”), Sambadrome (“samba” + “-drome”), Tanghetto (“tango” + “ghetto”), Biodanza (this one is kinda obvious)… Here Zumba is doing well too: Zumbatomic, Aqua Zumba, Zumbathon, even Zumba Green (a colour which I call “toxic yellow”). Now imagine what would happen if they still were called Rumbacize.

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