I write about all kinds of names, including the bad ones. I believe every company and product deserves a distinctive, memorable name—and no company deserves a name that’s embarrassing or awkward.
But what makes a bad name bad? Well, unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each bad name is not bad in its own unique way. Here are the badness patterns I see most frequently:
Counterintuitive spelling. A coined name like Nyoombl needs to be pronounced phonetically (if at all), but it isn’t—not by a long shot. Reasonable assumptions about English pronunciation dictate that Virgance be pronounced with a hard G, but it isn’t. We look at Brayola and mentally rhyme it with Crayola, but that’s not what the company wants us to do. Moral: Don’t make us work this hard. It’s a name, not a cryptography test.
Inappropriate connotation. If you know nothing about what Infegy actually does, you might deduce that it had something to do with “infamy,” “effigy,” or “infect.” When I look at Reniquity, all I see is “iniquity”—over and over again. FlubIt suggests failure, GloSmart evokes furniture polish … and those interpretations have nothing to do with the companies in question. (Don’t even get me started on Analtech.) Moral: Consult several dictionaries, not just one. Make one of them a slang dictionary. Then get some advice from someone who understands language.
Awkwardness. These are the names that put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble or force incompatible sounds to cohabit. They’re a frequent consequence of machine-generated names, most of which simply fuse word parts into artificial blends without considering logic or ease of pronunciation. But humans can create awkward names, too: consider Herdict, Mathnasium, and AbbVie. (And see The Name Inspector for more examples.) Moral: If the name flunks the telephone test, it’s not going to inspire positive word-of-mouth.
The bandwagon effect. So many names end in -ly. So many names end in -ify. Remember, a name needs to be distinctive and memorable, and you won’t achieve those goals by doing what all the other kids are doing. Moral: Do some research into naming trends. And get a professional opinion.
What about cross-cultural naming gaffes, you may be wondering. Contrary to widespread belief, they are relatively rare. (That story about the Chevy Nova doing poorly in Spanish-speaking countries? It’s a myth.) If you’re taking your company or product global, you should certainly invest in a linguistic screen to rule out a major blunder. But, as we’ve seen, people can accept a brand name that means “cease and desist” in Swahili (Hulu) or one that suggests “oral sex” in Russian (Mondelez). The bad names I see—and I do see a lot of them—are making mischief in English, not Swahili or Thai or Malay.