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How Words Become Names, and Names Become Something Uniquely Different

By Drew Letendre

In the arcane world of name creation, we namers organize the landscape into four territories.

• Descriptive names (International Business Machines, General Electric);
• Metaphorical names (Apple, Caterpillar);
• Hybrid names (LensCrafters, BrandingBusiness), and;
• Synthetic or evocative names (Altria, Nexium).

Hovering over this etymological landscape there is a further distinction between what I refer to as Word Names and Name Names.

Name Names
Word Names are quite simply words like you find in the dictionary, such as Apple and Caterpillar and Continental and United, used as names for companies or products. Name Names, by contrast—like Altria, Arcelor, Kodak and Avaya—are names without inherent meaning, for which there is no dictionary equivalent or entry.

The purpose and value of a Name Name is—perhaps ironically—it doesn’t mean anything.

It turns its meaninglessness into a virtue. It is a shell for a meaning assigned from without. It can be made to signify whatever a business wants it to mean or to call to mind.

Name Names are in that regard, not unlike surnames (Smith and Jones). Unless you unearth their deep etymological roots, they don’t describe or really stand for anything. They simply identify. They pick out one entity uniquely among all others. That said, surnames (and place names as well) can become vehicles of meaning or association.

Names like Tiffany and Pirelli, which do not denote, can connote—that is, call to mind, not only associated product categories (jewelry, tires), but places (Fifth Avenue, Milan), and better yet, abstract properties like luxury, quality, and performance. Doesn’t Pirelli want to be a name for performance or Tiffany synonymous with luxury?

Owning either is a glorious license for category expansion.

This underscores the point that Name Names function largely, subliminally or evocatively. They can be designed precisely to trigger specific associations. Take Accenture, for example.

It is a compression or abbreviation of the formula, Accent on the Future. Perhaps Accenture’s inventors hoped to stir an idea like, “focused on the next big thing,” in the mind of the hearer, and thereby re-position the former Anderson Consulting as a company that leans in and thinks ahead of the competition (and trends), and/or on behalf of its clients.

Carefully composed of real word fragments, such names can call up the meanings of the whole words they derive from, sometimes piecing them together into whole, new propositions.

Interestingly, there are names that are, in effect, simultaneously Word Names and Name Names. Take Google, for instance. “Googol” (the original spelling) is a real, technical term from the domain of mathematics, denoting a number equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros and expressed as 10100. It is in virtue of their obscurity, their antiquity, their exoticism, if you will, or their exclusive use by a small coterie of specialists, that such real words will be perceived, when used in commerce, as Name Names.

It is because only a very tiny community of users actually employ or understand such words and/or because they have fallen long out of use (archaic), that they appear so, and can thus be exploited as empty vessels, in spite of their real cargo.

Word Names
Yet another permutation is when a company deigns to identify itself by a name that is a common word—again, the examples of Apple and Caterpillar spring to mind. Such Word Names operate by either:

• Establishing a metaphorical relationship, leveraging at least one aspect of its literal-descriptive denotation (or some association) or;
• Simply by gutting the word of all meaning, hollowing it out as such, and stuffing it full of whatever they want their brand to convey—making a name out of it, in the process.

Banana Republic seems to be an instance of this latter form of verbal branding. Any connection between the name and its original, literal meaning has been completely severed, creating a vacuum to be filled at will—verbal taxidermy.

Perhaps the idea of crispness is what the Apple brand is leveraging from the thing that grows on trees, and what the business wishes to implant in the mind of the market, as a metaphor for innovation—a fresh or crisp idea. I’ve heard it said that the apple name and logo are allusions to the Bible’s Book of Genesis, a reference to Eve’s Promethean bite as a metaphor for the company’s Davidic challenge to the PC establishment. Apocryphal or not, it is a plausible, relevant exegesis of a global business symbol.

Perhaps Tangerine (a bold moniker for a bank) is intended to evoke nothing at all. Perhaps it is, by design, utter stipulation—a name meant to make the business memorable in virtue of the shock value of an assertively arbitrary name…brazen, high-contrast stipulation as an attention-getting device, as a way of standing out against a crowded field.

The Big Take-Away
“So, what?”, you might reasonably ask. This is all sort of interesting, but what does it tell the branding professional or the to-be-named business that’s worth knowing?

First, that even the more (or the most) pre-structured of naming materials (i.e., real words and their bigger, more easily recognized fragments) are far more malleable than one might at first think. Again, think of Banana Republic: To be sure, it is more of an uphill climb to alter, transform, or gut the meaning of familiar terms with established definitions, than simply to pair your intended meaning with a newly invented form. There is more resistance in the material, especially if your aim is to change rather than build on what is already there.

Second—and correlatively—unstructured (or less structured) linguistic materials—morphemes, fragments, syllables—are more meaningful than they may appear at first blush.

Let’s consider Accenture again: We language users almost cannot help but to extrude meaning from ostensibly meaningless sounds and symbols. We are caught in—and caught up in— webs of meaning from which it is almost impossible to remove ourselves.

As with the amorphous Rorschach Blot (or the passing clouds), where we insist on discerning or projecting the identifiable shapes and images of known things, we almost cannot help but to impress meaning on the blots and clouds of characters and sounds.

These two insights, I think, are liberation and license for naming—the canvas is bigger and blanker than we thought.