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This morning I asked a woman in a shop Как его зовут?, referring to some toothpaste. She replied "Aquafresh". Is it perhaps that зовут specifically connotes asking for something's name, rather than just the word for it? Is there a better way to say it?

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When referring some nonliving object, it's better to ask:

  • To get the name (title in the case of goods) of a particular object:

    Как это называется?

  • To get the type (class, kind) of an object:

    Что это?

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With objects, you ask Как это называется? (Note also that это, rather than оно, is the default "it" pronoun for objects; you use the pronoun of the object's respective grammatical gender when you've already referred to that object.)

Как его/её зовут? is even more specific than that, it's for asking about someone’s name, so asking it about something like toothpaste sounds whimsical. You can ask it about an animal, though.

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The most comfortable form for the person you're asking would be:

"Как называется эта <вещь>?"

Как называется эта зубная паста? Как называется этот город? Как называется то дерево?

This way you specify the thing which name you like to know.

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  • It sounded to me like the OP didn't know the name of the object and was attempting to elicit that exact piece of information by asking the question. Jan 22 '15 at 17:53
  • @MrWonderful then OP can surely ask "Как называется эта вещь?"
    – alamar
    Jan 23 '15 at 15:44
  • Ah, I see. Google gave "As the name of this <item>?" for the translation of your first answer. I thought it sounded awkward. When I remove the angle brackets, it came out perfectly to what you suggested. My bad. Thanks! Jan 26 '15 at 0:59
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"Как его зовут?" = "What is his name?"

If I heard "Как его зовут?" referring to a thing in a supermarket, I would understand it as "How the mascot of this thing is called?" if there was a picture of a super-hero or an animal on the box, or you were asking for the name of the advertising actor whose photo is depicted. If there were no animated hero or a photo on the thing, I just would not parse the question (or, possibly, would guess you are asking about the name of the CEO of the company that produces the thing?).

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  • That's very helpful, thanks. Maybe the closest english equivalent would be asking "What is he called?" ?
    – Jack M
    Jan 22 '15 at 7:29
  • @Jack M roughly like "what is his name?"
    – Anixx
    Jan 22 '15 at 7:51

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