The Art of Naming Things

A poorly chosen name.
What do the words on this sign make you think of?

The other day I came across a fascinating story about archaeologists digging up what was believed to be the world’s oldest bra. It was 600 years old and was apparently called ‘breastbags’ at the time.

This excellent discovery got me thinking. As a copywriter, I’m often given the task of naming things – products, companies, services, etc. – and it’s one of my favourite things to do. Names not only communicate what something does, but they also give us feelings based on the combination of sounds and connotations relating to combinations of letters. But what is the science behind it? When did it become more about communicating a story than describing something in the literal sense?

Naming in Art and Science

Further research revealed other fascinating information surrounding the art and science of naming things. One article described the difference between naming things in the field of science compared to naming things in the arts. The author, Chad Orzel, described a talk by Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist and novelist from MIT, who claimed:

“…science is deeply concerned with naming things because naming a thing in some sense defines it – the word ‘electron’ carries with it a whole host of properties that are shared by all electrons in the universe. In the arts, on the other hand, names don’t have the same power, because the same word can mean different things in different contexts, and for different people. For that reason, artists are not as keen to name things as scientists.”

Naming in Software Development

I also found information on the process of naming things in the field of software development. One author claims that programming itself is the art of naming because it helps the developer understand the meaning of program elements without having to think too much about the how. A good name gives enough information to understand the purpose of what is being named, and a bad name just creates unnecessary work when trying to remember its arbitrary connotations.

The Wild West of Naming Start-Ups

Many start-ups don’t seem to follow any particular formula when picking their names. For example, Mashable published a post about how some of the top start-ups got their names, including:

• Google came from a misspelling of the word ‘googol’

• Twitter was pulled out of a hat

• Zynga was named after the CEO’s dog

Getting Paid Handsomely to Name Things (aka My Goal in Life)

A fascinating piece in the New Yorker describes an agency called Lexicon that specializes in naming brands. The agency is credited with coming up with some pretty big names like Dasani, BlackBerry and Swiffer.

Lexicon Founder David Placek believes the best brand names are like poetry, or the result of compressing an array of meanings and associations into a single word. He uses unexpected stimuli during naming sessions, and believes they spark creativity. Lexicon also uses worldwide focus groups, free-associated mind mapping, and the knowledge of over 77 linguists around the world to come up with winning brand names.

Placek might use a few out-of-the-ordinary tactics, but he believes that a good name does not just happen. Here are some of his tips for finding a good name:

• Keep names short

• Consonant-vowel-consonant patterns often work well

• Try to use pleasant sounds or alliteration

• Determine the story you want to tell, and the word that evokes that

• You don’t have to be predictable or even logical

What’s in Your Name?

How did you come up with a name for your business? Share your story in the comments!




About the author: JessicaGrey

I'm a copywriter for web, print, radio and video. Contact me to get content that effectively communicates the benefits of your product or service.

5 comments to “The Art of Naming Things”

You can leave a reply or Trackback this post.

  1. Laure - January 8, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Great article Jessica, thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    There are also company names that break these rules and are famous anyway: like Schwarzkopf!
    Cheers, Laure

  2. JessicaGrey - January 9, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Indeed! There are always exceptions to the rule.

    I looked it up out of curiosity: Schwartzopf is a German haircare brand. The German translation is ‘black head’, so perhaps there is reason behind it.

  3. @oldgravy - January 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I didn’t pay any attention to your post after the word “breastbags.”

  4. JessicaGrey - January 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Haha. A little too literal for you?

  5. Josef E. Houston - February 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    This is a complex issue. A brand name represents the image, character and personality of a brand. Some brand names such as Coca-cola by itself does not represent anything until it is positioned with the proper communication and image that represents what it stands for. On the other hand, a brand name like McDonalds represent westen origins while a brand name like Honda represent Japanese efficeincy, culture and personality. Hence, I think that brand names that are linked to associations of their origins or product will create first impressions to the user. Also, some brand names are feature related, e.g. Burger King that tells the market that it is a brand associated to the product itself. On the otherhand, brands like Pepsi on its own may not mean anything until the image and charater of the brand is communicated to the market.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.