The headline is inaccurate and inadequate— “words” don’t “become startups”—and I take issue with the snarky attitude, but this list of short “real” (dictionary) words used as names of startups is worth a look. And the way they’re organized is downright poetic. (Hat tip: Karen Wise.)
Speaking of poetic, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead consideredthe favorite words of some writers (mostly British and Irish)—Hilary Mantel loves nesh, Taiye Selasi celebrates the Ghanaian colloquialism chale—and added a favorite of her own.
I was meandering through Costco, looking for some yummy tofu-skin noodles I’d sampled during a store demo a few weeks earlier. I never found the the noodles—Costco can be like that—but I did spot True Story, a new-to-me brand of organic meat products.
Hmm. You can tell a story, hear a story, read a story, or film a story. But can you taste a story?
Almost overnight, it seems, the world has fallen head over heels for Slack.
“I am basically in love with Slack,” declares About.me founder Tony Conrad in a testimonial on Slack’s home page. “Slack, a messaging tool designed for team collaboration, is the working digital world’s latest paramour,” writes Scott Rosenberg in an admiring article published earlier this month on Medium (“Shut Down Your Office. You Now Work in Slack”). “Slack is the new favourite tool of newsrooms” reads a headline in Digiday, which calls itself “the authority on digital media.” In April, Slack’s co-founders won a Crunchie—one of the technology awards bestowed each year by TechCrunch—for founder of the year. Slack is also the investment world’s BFF: launched less than two years ago, it has only about 750,000 daily users—more than two-thirds of whom pay nothing for the service—but is worth $2.8 billion, according to Business Insider.
Chart via Business Insider(May 19, 2015), which is shaky on its spelling of Pinterest.
The numbers and accolades are impressive. But how does that name—Slack—stack up?
The company has an athleisure*(athletic + leisure) pedigree: one of the co-founders, Shannon Wilson, is married to Chip Wilson, who founded the yogawear pioneer Lululemon. The other co-founder is Chip’s oldest son, JJ. (Chip Wilson, who is an informal adviser to Kit and Ace, “resigned from Lululemon’s board last year, after a disastrous episode involving unintentionally see-through yoga pants,” writes Widdicombe.)
Where did the Kit and Ace name come from? Here’s Widdicombe:
JJ oversees branding for the Kit and Ace line. The name, he explained, refers to two imaginary “muses” that he and Shannon came up with. Kit is the name Shannon would have given a daughter (for Vancouver’s Kitsilano beach, “where all my dreams came true,” she said). “I think of Kit as Shannon in her heyday,” JJ said. “An artist at heart, a creator. A West Coast girl. An athlete.” Ace, her masculine counterpart, is “a West Coast guy. He likes things that are easy and carefree.” He filled out the picture: Ace surfs. “He’s graduated college. He’s thirty-two. He’s maybe dating The One.”
Could Ace be modelled on JJ? His parents teased. “He’s a bit of a pain in the ass!” Shannon said.
“A little pretentious,” Chip said, laughing.
There’s no explanation of the symbol that stands in for “and.”
Besides being plausible personal names, kit and ace have other relevant meanings. Kit can mean “a set of articles or implements used for a specific purpose” (a survival kit; a shaving kit), while ace can mean “expert” or “first rate.” Both words can function as verbs (to kit out, to ace a serve) as well as nouns.
This isn’t JJ’s first foray into retail, or into company names that follow the X + Y formula: He founded Wings + Horns, a menswear company, in Vancouver in 2004.
Kit and Ace sells clothes made from a washable fabric blend the company calls Qemir (sometimes uncapitalized; pronunciation uncertain): 81 percent viscose, 9 percent cashmere, 10 elastene. The company has applied for trademark protection for “Qemir” and for a tagline: “Technical Cashmere.”
For your weekend reading, may I recommend “The Weird Science of Naming New Products,” a longish story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about my favorite subject: naming. The article, by the cultural critic and author Neal Gabler, is essentially a case study of how one Palo Alto technology startup got its name.
I won’t spoil the story for you by revealing any more details, but I will tell you that Anthony Shore, who developed the name, is an acquaintance and a very talented namer; I know many of the other name developers mentioned in the article, too (we’re a close-knit coterie here in the Bay Area). It’s great to see a general-interest publication devote this much serious attention to our field. (It’s been tried before, with mixed results:see my post about a 2011 article in The New Yorker.)
Congratulations to Anthony on the coverage! And here’s hoping all prospective clients read the article and gain an appreciation for the work that goes into creating memorable names.
A few quibbles about the Times Magazine story:
“Weird science”? Oh, c’mon. It’s also weird art. And weird legal stuff.
“The hills above Oakland”? Check a map. Those prominences are the Oakland hills; they’re within the city limits.
The iPad wasn’t confused with a tampon; it was confused with a pad. See my 2010 post.
“We’re taxed with doing something different”? Yes, branding can be a taxing effort, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Anthony said. I suspect that Gabler mis-heard tasked, or the copyeditor changed it.
This week a San Francisco startup, Marvina, launched its subscription delivery service for medical marijuana. For $95, $175, or $325 a month, San Franciscans who are qualified under California’s Compassionate Use Act can receive 7, 14, or 28 “top-shelf” grams of cannabis, tastefully packaged and delivered to their doors by an employee of a medical-marijuana dispensary.
“Co-founder Dane Pieri came up with the idea because he was intimidated and overwhelmed by the cannabis dispensaries,” writes reporter Zara Stone in OZY.* “‘It’s like when you’re in the grocery store at the wine aisle; we didn’t know what to do,’ he told OZY. He thought he’d create a service where choice wasn’t in the equation.”
Nothing. Well actually its [sic] a nod to Malvina Reynolds, one of our favorite songwriters. Her song Little Boxes was also the theme song of one of our favorite TV shows, Weeds. (Ok, when we talk about Weeds we really mean seasons 1-3 because the other seasons really don't compare to those first three. If you're a fan of the show you know what we mean.)
“Weeds,” of course, was Showtime’s long-running series about a housewife named Nancy (which also happens to be the name of Malvina Reynolds’s daughter) who starts selling marijuana after her husband’s premature death leaves her family in dire straits. The name of the fictional community in which Nancy lives, Agrestic, has been adopted by a marijuana dispensary in Corvallis, Oregon.
Marvina is an elegant portmanteau**—mar from marijuana and vina from Malvina—that stands out amid the ticky-tacky clutter of similar-sounding names in this area (see my post on 420 names). The Malvina Reynolds connection has extra resonance for a service that delivers its product in “little boxes.”
Speaking of weedy names, I’m headed to Portland, Oregon, for the next several days to attend the annual meeting of the American Name Society and sister organizations. On Saturday afternoon I’ll be giving a talk at ANS titled “Velvet Elvis at the Mary Mart: The New Normal Nomenclature of Legal Cannabis.” I hope to see some of you at my session – or maybe at the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year vote Friday afternoon.
Dumped by parent company Kellogg in 2002 and briefly revived in 2008, the Hydrox cookie will make a comeback this fall. Cue the “Hydrox Redux” headlines!
The dead Hydrox trademark was acquired in 2013 byLeaf Brands, a candy company in Newport Coast (Orange County), California, that is also reviving several other “ghost brands,” including Tart n Tinys, Wacky Wafers, Quicksand bubble gum, and Astro Pops. Leaf Brands has an interesting history of its own, about which more in a bit.
Hydrox is the original American sandwich cookie—it was introduced in 1908, four years before that upstart knockoff Oreo—and it had maintained a small but loyal following throughout the brand’s ups and downs. (See this fan page, for instance.) Its original manufacturer was Sunshine (later Sunshine Biscuits), which was sold to Keebler in 1996. Keebler reformulated the product and reintroduced it under the “Droxies” name.* Kellogg’s bought Keebler in 2001 and lost no time in sending the Droxies and Hydrox brands to their crumbly death.
“Don’t be fooled by ‘look-alikes’!” Hydrox ad valiantly targets Oreo in a 1954 issue of Woman’s Day.
The origin of the Oreo name is officially a mystery. Buzzfeed claims the “or” came from the French word for gold: the original packaging was a gold-colored tin.
Original Oreo tin via Buzzfeed.
In his book about brand-name origins, From Altoids to Zima, Evan Morris writes that oreo is Greek for “mountain” and that the name was chosen because early versions of the cookie were dome-shaped. (I have found no evidence to support this theory.) “Or maybe Oreo was just easy to say and remember,” Morris ventures. That’s more like it. Consider, too, those symmetric O’s, so reminiscent of the twin cookie disks that bracket the creamy center. (You can’t spell creamy without re.)
“Oh-oh! Oreo”—round eyes, round mouth, round letters, round cookie. The brand’s first slogan, created in 1950. Ad via Buzzfeed.
“Oreo conveys round and is fun to say and hear,” Steven Addis of branding consultancy Addis toldUSA Today. “Hydrox sounds scientific and medicinal ... not appetizing at all.”
Some people found it appetizing enough. One reason Hydrox survived as long as it did was its kosher status. For decades, Oreo’s filling was made with lard, which observant Jews won’t eat, while the Hydrox crème filling was made with vegetable oil. To Jews who kept kosher, “Hydrox” may have suggested not merely medicinal but clean. Oreo switched to a kosher filling in 1998, thus removing the last barrier to total cookie domination.
But not quite. My family didn’t keep kosher, but we always bought and ate Hydrox cookies anyway, probably because they were cheaper than the competition. That early conditioning took: When I first tasted an Oreo, I didn’t like it—not crisp enough on the outside, too gooey on the inside, too sweet throughout.
It remains to be seen what Leaf Brands will do with its new acquisition. Leaf, by the way, is the surname of the company’s founders; according to a press release, the company was founded in the 1920s and was once the fourth-largest candy company in the U.S. It’s the parent company of familiar candy brands like Whoppers and Jolly Ranchers, and it recently released a new product called Farts Candy, which won the Most Innovative Product award at the 2014 Sweets & Success Expo. Here is the official description of Farts: “Flavorful chewy candy nuggets in all kinds of fruity flavors that are so fun and yummy, they’re funny! So fun, they’ll make you laugh!”
Leaf Brands was not amused, however, by a Twitter account called @HydroxCookie.
Specialty’s Café and Bakery, which has 48 locations in California, Washington, and Illinois, has been puzzling proofreaders and other persnickety types since its founding in 1986.
Specialty’s in downtown San Jose.
Sure, we love the giant cookies, the fresh focaccia, and the meal-in-a-bowl soups. But that apostrophe! It’s wrong, right? Unless, of course, there was a Jane Specialty in the company’s past, and that the possessive apostrophe signifies that the chain is named for her. Unlikely, sure. But stranger things have happened.
I’m a former journalist, and I never let idle speculation take the place of investigation. So I sent an email via Specialty’s website, hoping (but not really expecting) that someone would set me straight.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a phone call (a phone call!) from Sean Reiter, vice president of branding and sales at Specialty’s. “I understand you want to know about our … unique name,” he said, chuckling. And then he told me this story:
The company started in a familiar way: garage, two founders, maxed-out credit cards. The name the founders chose was Specialties—the correctly spelled plural. (More on that choice later.) “But when they went to apply for a business license,” Sean told me, “they discovered that spelling was taken, so they changed it to Specialty’s.” (More on that in a bit, too.)
I’m not the first person to ask about the spelling, Sean added. “We get a fair number of inquiries. In fact, I used to send out a response that read, ‘We’s don’t understand’s the problem’s!’”
Then he told me another spelling story.
Specialty’s corporate offices are in Pleasanton, California, about 25 miles east of Oakland and the site of the Alameda County Fair. The town was founded in 1894 by John W. Kottinger, an Alameda County justice of the peace, who named it in honor of his friend, a Civil War-era general named Alfred Pleasonton. A typographical error by a U.S. Post Office employee turned “Pleasonton” into “Pleasanton.”
What better home for a misspelled company than a misspelled town? Clearly, I told Sean, Specialty’s and Pleasanton are a perfect match. And then we both laughed.
Specialty’s is doing so well, and Sean Reiter was so good-humored and generous with his time, that it seems churlish to nitpick further. But names are my game, so I am obliged to point out some lessons to be learned from this story:
1. Whether it’s spelled Specialties or Specialty’s, it’s not a very good name. It falls somewhere between generic and descriptive; it fails to suggest a benefit or evoke an emotion. It certainly doesn’t say “delicious,” “speedy,” “fresh,” or any of the other qualities we’ve come to expect from the chain. “Specialness” is not a distinctive claim; all of Specialty’s competitors can make it.
On the other hand, I’m also obliged to tell you that there are companies with long and successful histories whose names resulted from misspellings. Ski-Doo (a misspelling of Ski-Dog), Lands’ End (a misplaced apostrophe) and Lane Bryant (a misspelling of the founder’s first name) are three that come to mind.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a cookie. Or maybe three cookie’s.