Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Few Notes On A Popular Brand Of Swabs

Unilever, the curiously named (it always sounds to me like the title of a lost Philip K. Dick novel) manufacturer of Q-Tips, promotes its product as "the ultimate beauty tool," which, let's be honest, is complete horseshit.

On both the front and back of the package of 170 cotton swabs that I now have on my desk there is the phrase "Variety of Uses," which is the sort of literal truth that might apply to a great many things, including sticks.

Q-Tips were invented in the 1920s by a fellow named Leo Gerstenzang, and were originally introduced as Baby Gays. In the U.K. they are known as cotton buds.

Baby Gays is certainly a curious name for a swab (and I'd be curious to know what Gerstenzang and his cohorts were thinking at the time), but if they'd stuck with it who's to say it wouldn't eventually have become as devoid of awkward speculation or real meaning as many another absurd brand name. You know what I'm talking about? There are all sorts of products whose names I would feel foolish uttering aloud --and some of them I am occasionally required to utter aloud-- if I allowed myself to stop and really think about what I was saying. Many candy names and fast food restaurant offerings certainly fall under this category. I would furnish some examples, but don't much feel like it. I will say, though, that I would welcome your own contributions to such a list.

At any rate, Q-Tips were once Baby Gays, but whatever you wish now to call them they are indisputably swabs.

I adore the word swab. Truly, I love it, and wish I had more opportunities to throw it around. I also am a devotee of Q-Tips (I go through a lot of them), but they do not, for me, have a variety of uses. They have exactly one use: I employ them to clean my ears, to scratch my ears and dig around deep inside my ears with a zeal that many have found alarming. All of those, in fact, who have seen me at it would, I feel sure, agree that they have never seen anyone swab with such concentrated ferocity.

It says right on the box: "Do not insert swab into ear canal," but I am a maverick of swabbing and will not be deterred by small print designed to protect against litigation brought by artless, swabbing morons who puncture their ear drums.

I have now, very slowly, read every word on the Q-Tip package and feel as if I have been told a dozen lies and had my intelligence insulted for ten uninterrupted minutes, and still I have not learned the one thing I hoped the Q-Tip package would tell me: what does the Q stand for?

I have already steeled myself for what I feel is the obvious (too obvious) and entirely uninspired answer to this question, so uninspired that the folks at Unilever are probably (and understandably) a bit sheepish about providing this piece of embarrassing information anywhere on their packaging.

I will not, however, google for the answer to this question. Instead, first thing Monday morning I will call the company headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (201.894.4000) and I will force someone in marketing or public relations to give me what I'm almost certain will be a hesitant answer. Given the realities of corporate communication today, I'm prepared to spend some time on hold, and to be passed along to as many as three, or possibly four, parties, hopefully working my way up the chain of Unilever command. And if --as I suspect they will-- someone finally tells me that the Q in Q-Tips stands for Quality (I have mulled ever other Q word in my dictionary, and the only other possible candidates, however outlandish, are Quell and Quotidian), I will first lodge a formal complaint, and then I will immediately begin my search for a new swab, an alternate, perhaps more creative or even edgy swab, a swab that's not such an unimaginative, lying prick of a swab, however convenient and effective I may have personally found it for excavations of my ear canal, etc.

In the meantime, I'd be eager to hear of your experiences (pleasant or not so pleasant) with alternate swabs that I might find in the swab aisle of my local drugstore.


  1. Baby Gays = Queer Tips. Is that too obvious?


  2. Mark! You just made me spit out my decaf Earl Grey.

    All I came up with was Quivery Tips, which is inappropriate on many levels.

    What was the company's response, is what I want to know.

  3. The company's response --obtained at 2:51 CST after 41 minutes on hold-- was exactly what I imagined it would be: the Q stands for Quality.
    Time for a new swab.

  4. I must agree, fellow swabbing maverick, that it is singularly pleasurable to swab one's ears with a cotton swab (nearly as pleasurable as the word itself). And to those legal types who would warn against swab insertion, just think of the alternatives. Mightily did I shiver in disgust as a child watching my father jab at his auditory orifice with the long skinny part of a pen cap, and I have wondered since why I didn't think to inquire about that habit before acquiring a life mate. Can you imagine, scraping away with hard plastic? I would NEVER.

    My swab-obsessed friend found out the hard way that there are no international swab standards. Living in Central America, she bought the local brand, and sure they seemed a little skimpy on the cotton, but hey, this was an adventure in the third world. If you stay free of abdominal parasites, you're doing okay. Fast forward several months, marked by a constant earache of increasing intensity which, despite the pharmacy giving her many times the dose they give locals because "you Americans are practically immune to antibiotics," refused to dissipate. Finally she gets sent to an ear specialist, and after some poking and prodding, he pulls out a cotton swab of inferior design which had come off the stick and lodged itself deep in her ear canal. Let's just say that from then on she packed her own Q-Tips bought in the good ol' US of A.

  5. Oreo, dang, I wish I hadn't read your response, at least so early in the morning, as I am now cringing and shuddering at the thought of such swabbiness. As one who has witnessed much crazed swabbing behavior in others and entreated (is that a word? somehow it doesn't look right) them to stop, to no avail, I choose to turn the entire matter over to Dr. Freud, who would be more than happy, I'm sure, to explain it.