Google was in the news last week (is there ever a week when Google is not in the news?) after the company's blog announced the quiet launch of a new, Wikipedia-like project called Knol. Unlike Wikipedia, whose contributors are anonymous (and their authority unknown to readers), Knol will "highlight authors," according to Google's vice president of engineering, Udi Manber:
Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. For now, using it is by invitation only. But we wanted to share with everyone the basic premises and goals behind this project.
All very interesting, of course. But what about the name?
In his blog post, Manber defines knol as "a unit of knowledge." He consistently spells the word with a lower-case k, and writes that "we use the word 'knol' as the name of the project and as an instance of an article interchangeably." Outside Google, however, commenters have capitalized the name.
So--spelling: variable. What about pronunciation?
Motley Fool punned about "grassy knol" (that's a JFK-assassination reference, in case you didn't recognize it) and proposed the term "Knol troll" "for the money-chasing types who will plague the site if Google winds up encouraging mutinous behavior." Both usages suggest a long-vowel pronunication, as does the example of two other English words that end in -ol: extol and control.
But if knol is short for knowledge, it would logically require a short vowel sound. And there are several examples in English of words that end in -ol in which the o is short: protocol, parasol, alcohol. Note that all of them are three syllables long, with the stress on the first syllable. The one-syllable knol--pronounced to rhyme more or less with doll--follows a less familiar model. (Doubling the l might or might not help: -oll can be pronounced with either vowel sound.)
(William Lozito of NameWire argues that Knol is too close to "nul," meaning "nothing." Actually, nul is a Latin term, pronounced with a long u; the English equivalent is null.)
That's one pronunciation challenge. The other is the initial k, which is presumably silent. I've considered the problem of the initial silent k in my earlier analysis of Knuru (coined from knowledge + guru). Yes, many familiar words have a silent k--knife, knight, knee, knit--but when we encounter a coined kn- word we hesitate slightly. Could it be pronounced ka-nawl? Or ka-nole?
(I noticed another silent-k coined name last year, social-networking site that called itself Knover, coined from knowledge + rover. Again, the pronunciation was not quite intuitive. In any event, Knover seems to have come and gone within about 12 months: enter knover.com and you're redirected to something called FreshNotes.)
Google's new Knol is confusing legally, too. There's the much-better-known Knoll, the global, 70-year-old office-furniture manufacturer whose name rhymes with roll. And there's Knology (ticker symbol: KNOL), a 13-year-old cable company that serves the southeastern United States.
Finally, I'm not convinced that "Knol" clearly communicates "knowledge." There's that missing w, for starters. Without it, the word can look like knot or knoll to the casual reader.
That's a lot of encumbrances for one very short name.
Google could have made it work, to borrow a Project Runway catchphrase. Spelling the word Knole would have clarified that the vowel is meant to be long; spelling it Gnol would have retained the G-for-Google branding element while keeping the sense of to know (as in agnostic--admittedly a more arcane connection). Knowl is another option.
Or Google could have adhered to its established naming conventions (Gmail, Google Maps, etc.) and gone with a more straightforward name such as Gpedia, GoogleWise, Google Knowledge, or Googlepedia. Too boring? How about Gooru? Or TheKnow? Or even Ken, a wonderful old English word that means "perception" or "understanding" and is easy to anthropomorphize?