Many companies "are turning to short-term 'test periods' as economic instability and high unemployment continue to shape hiring standards," according to a story published in the San Francisco Chronicle last Sunday. One such firm, Virgance, is as interesting for its name as for its hiring practices.
But first, the "in the news" part. Virgance is based in San Francisco; on its website, it says it's "a company that seeks to promote world-changing activism campaigns using market-based methods that are effective, transparent, profitable, and scalable." According to the Chron story, Virgance requires all new hires to work as hourly contractors for a month before they're hired. Virgance's CEO defends that practice:
"I've had people who are horrible at interviewing but are awesome employees, and people who are great at interviews and horrible employees," said Steve Newcomb, who founded the 15-person company. "So for me this has zero to do with the current economy and 100 percent to do with building a top-notch team."
Virgance's one-month contract program is called "Try before you buy" and requires company staff to vote on the cultural fit and skill set of the employee on trial. The program has existed since the company's founding in 2000. "When you do get an offer at Virgance, it's incredibly empowering because you know that you were unanimously voted in," said Newcomb, 39.
Now: about the name. If you're seeing "Virgance" for the first time, how do you think it's pronounced? And what do you think it means?
The answer: If you assume the second syllable of "Virgance" is pronounced like the last syllable of "elegance," your logic is flawless. And you're wrong.
You won't see it on the website, but when I attended a panel discussion in which Mr. Newcomb took part, I heard the company's name pronounced like the second two syllables of "convergence": with a soft g.
Got that? We'll return to pronunciation in a minute. In the meantime, here's what the company says about the origin of its name:
Virgance (noun) - the birth of a powerful new force in nature that can be used for good or for evil.
coined by George Lucas
[Star Wars 1 - The Phantom Menace]
Yes, our company is named after a Star Wars reference. Yes, Steve [Newcomb] is a nerd. Now lend us your ear as we tell you this tale: When Qui-Gon first encountered Anakin Skywalker he stated, “I have just felt a Virgance in the force.” This means that he recognized in Anakin a powerful new force and he knew that it had the potential to be good or evil.
Too bad that story is only half right.
I went to the source: the authorized novelization of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. Here's what I found on page 216:
“With your permission, my Master,” the Jedi replied, gaze steady. “I have encountered a vergence in the Force.”
Yoda’s eyes widened slightly. “A vergence, you say?”
Boldface added for emphasis. Note spelling and lack of capitalization.
Now, when the word is spelled vergence, the pronunciation is transparent. And, as it happens, Star Wars creator George Lucas didn't coin "vergence"; it has meanings in optics and geology. The word comes from the Latin vergere, to bend or turn; the root has given us diverge and converge.
So how did "vergence" become "Virgance" without changing its pronunciation?
I've tried and failed to find examples of English words in which /ga/ is pronounced with a soft g. The g is always hard. [UPDATE: The exceptions are margarine and the Britishism gaol.] The pronunciation of /ge/, by contrast, is variable: we have finger and danger, winger and whinger. No one familiar with even the rudiments of English pronunciation would choose to pronounce "Virgance" with a soft g.
Nor is Virgance/vergence a common mix-up. Do a Google search for [vergence + Star Wars] and you get 3,580 hits, all related to Phantom Menace. Do a Google search for [virgance + Star Wars] and you get 5,010 hits, every single one related to the Virgance corporate story. The only people confusing Virgance and vergence are the people behind Virgance.
Clearly, liberties have been taken but not acknowledged. I'm going to make a semi-educated guess and posit that the company's founders were unable to buy Vergence.com. (It's registered to a healthcare-technology company, Sentillion.) Rather than develop another name or modify Vergence (for example, as Vergence-Co.com, which is available, or any number of other variations), they invented a new, counterintuitive spelling and a brazen story to go with it—namely, that "Virgance" is how the word is spelled in the Phantom Menace screenplay.
Now, you can sell the public on almost anything if you insist loudly enough and hope they don't check up on you, and that's what Steve Newcomb and company have done. Nevertheless, I'm bothered by this. (If I were George Lucas, I'd be bothered even more.) Ease of pronunciation is one of the key factors in a successful name. (Other important factors include memorability and availability.) Sure, you can choose to pronounce Virgance with a soft g on the radio or in public discussions, but how do you control the perception in print?
Other things bother me about the Virgance brand and story. I'm concerned that I couldn't find a trademark filing for the company in the USPTO database. (It's possible that it was filed too recently to appear online, but still: bothersome for a company founded in May 2008.) There's the silly, rambling "Odyssey of Virgance," rendered as a badly written fable ("I am the Oracle of the Sun, and I dip my morning bread in cadmium telluride") in too-wide columns of pale-gray sans-serif text, when a concise, straightforward corporate history would be more effective.
Quiet, you… it’s a good name. We like metaphors, and it goes really well with our super cute bogman logo.
Except "block" and "grid" aren't metaphors; not here, anyway: they're literal constructs in the world of solar power. Moreover, "Quiet, you" drips with condescension: not the best way to invite trust and participation. Besides, who says 1BOG is "a good name"? Not I. Defending the name because of a "cute" logo is immature and shortsighted.
Virgance has positioned itself as "Activism 2.0," a new way to effect social change while making a profit. But its aggressively defensive posture and poor storytelling threaten to sabotage its message. And its counterintuitive pronunciation of "Virgance" is a phantom menace.
"A Vergence in the Force" card from Star Wars Customizable Card Game.