“When Simon Tam dropped out of college in California and moved to Portland, Ore., to become a rock star, the last tangle he imagined falling into was a multiyear battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over his band’s name.” The trademark tussle over “The Slants,” which the USPTO has deemed “disparaging” and thus ineligible for protection. (For a more technical perspective, see this Brent Lorentz post at Duets Blog.)
The strange charm of cutthroat compounds like pickpocket, scarecrow, and, well, cutthroat: Stan Carey on these rare English words“that have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.” (I wonder how the newish fondleslab fits in?)
The 2014 Social Security Administration stats on baby names are out, and the Baby Name Wizard blog has discovered some interesting trends in the data. The biggest trend? What naming expert Laura Wattenberg calls “the great smoothing of American baby names”: goodbye “chunky” names (Jayden, Jessica), hello “silky,” vowel-rich names (Amanda, Mia, Noah, Liam).
Speaking of popular names, here’s a fun tool to discover what your “today baby name” would be, based on the ranking of your own name in the year you were born. The tools works backward too: If I’d been born in the 1890s, chances are I’d have been named Minnie. More than a time-waster, the tool can be a big help in character-naming. (May take a while for the tool to load.)
“She originally went by Flo White, then Lord of the Strings. She eventually settled on the Period Fairy. It was more straightforward.” A new ad from category-busing Hello Flo, which sells a Period Starter Kit to adolescent girls.
If you’re considering a coined name for your company or product, it’s helpful to keep in mind a general rule of English pronunciation: When a vowel precedes a single consonant that’s followed by an e, the first vowel is long. Double the consonant and the vowel becomes shortened.
Later: long a. Latter: short a. Miler: long i. Miller: short i.
Yes, yes, there are exceptions. But coined words are like hoofbeats: we expect a horse, not a zebra. We look for simplicity, not conundrums.
I’m generally not a fan of company names that require phonetic pronunciation guides, but I’ll make an exception for Otoké Horticulture, a Colorado-based consultant to marijuana growers throughout the United States. The name story is just too good.
It’s “oh-toh-KAY.” P.S. Surely they can improve on the Papyrus typeface.
Given the company’s line of work, I at first surmised that the name was a thinly veiled allusion to “Oh! Toke!” It certainly seemed apt. (Did you know that the verb to toke refers exclusively to inhaling marijuana, and may come from Spanish tocar, to touch? I didn’t.)
But then I wondered about the acute accent over the e, which clearly alters the pronunciation. A brief bout of research revealed that otoke, pronounced oh-toh-kay, is Korean for “what to do?” or “what do I/we do?”
But guesswork won’t suffice for How They Got That Name, so I emailed the company. The response, from co-owner Kurt Badertscher, was prompt—and cryptic.
There is a personal story behind it, which is usually a bad basis for a name.
I persisted. Kurt relented.
[Company co-owner] Kerrie [Badertscher] had a native American friend who called her Otoke telling her it meant star of hope in Cherokee. When she started the company, she decided to call it Otoke and went looking for the Cherokee meaning only to find out her friend had been hitting on her with the start [sic] of hope line and the only place we can find a real meaning was that in Korean, it means What’s up/happening or such.
It isn’t often that a failed pickup line becomes a successful business name. Well played, Otoké.
By the way, if you live in a state where marijuana cultivation is legal—like, say, Colorado—you may want to buy the Badertschers’ magnum opus, Cannabis for Capitalists. The table of contents (which is all I’ve read) runs to more than nine pages, and looks to my untutored eye to be pretty darned comprehensive. I admit I’m curious about the epilogue: “R.I.P. Mary Jane Superweed.”
The online-only fashion and beauty retailer ASOSlaunched in London in 2000, began turning a profit in 2004, and first expanded outside the UK—originally to France, Germany, and the US—in 2010. Today the company has 4,000 employees and sales of £753.8 million (nearly $1.3 billion). The company sells more than 850 brands, including its own, and is the most-visited fashion website in the world, per day, among 18-to-34-year-olds.
The logo is lower case, but the company name appears in all caps everywhere else on the site. The media are less consistent: the Guardian (UK) spells it Asos; the New York Times has used both ASOSand Asos.
As for the pronunciation, opinions vary—some people use the A-S-O-S initialism, others rhyme it with “pesos”—but the consensus tilts toward “A-sauce” (rhymes with play-floss, emphasis on the first syllable).
Pronunciation diktats are irrelevant in the eyes of US trademark law. As Jessica Stone Levy noted in a comment on that Asus post, “the USPTO at least lives by the precept that ‘there is no correct pronunciation of a trademark because it is impossible to predict how the public will pronounce a particular mark’.”
Last week Kara Goucher, a top American distance runner and two-time Olympian, announced she was leaving Nike, her sponsor for more than 12 years. Her new sponsor is a small Seattle company—it has just 10 full-time employees—that sells only women’s running apparel: Oiselle.
In the world of elite runners and their fans, this was huge news. I probably speak for the rest of us when I say my response to the story—discovered via atweet from author/runner Rose George—was “Oi-what?”
The logo contains a clue: oiselle, according to the company’s About page, is “a French word for bird.” (It’s not in my French-English dictionary. According to my French-speaking resource Jessica Stone Levy, who has a better dictionary, it translates to “hen-bird,” whatever that means, and “the familiar meaning is damsel.” Adds Jessica: “I would say it’s lucky that not even a French major knows that meaning of the term.” Even a French minor knows the common word for bird, oiseau; one online source suggests that oiselle is the female form of the word, and this source gives the meaning of oisellerie as “bird-catching” or “bird-breeding.”)
As for the pronunciation and backstory, here’s Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergeson, herself a serious amateur runner (2:59 marathon):
In hindsight, it would be untrue to say that I haven’t cared deeply about running fast and even winning. But for me, and the small family that makes up Oiselle, the sport has always been about something more. At various times it’s our therapy, escape, religion, and girl time. But perhaps simply enough, it’s been our sense of freedom. And thus the name Oiselle (pronounced wa-zell). A French word for bird, it alludes to that feeling of weightlessness that most runners know and love. That sense of flight – when the legs go fast and the heart goes free.
This is a great story, and it goes a long way toward justifying a name that breaks all the conventional rules: it’s obscure, hard to pronounce, and hard to spell.
Sometimes, though, a “difficult” name is the perfect choice. And this strikes me as one of those times.
As I’ve written in the past, context counts. Here’s what I wrote then about another peculiar-seeming name, Melvyl:
University of California librarians didn’t need to be told the etymology behind Melvyl, the name of UC’s online library system: They recognized the name of Melvil Dewey, father of the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey’s first name is obscure to us laypeople, but that’s OK with librarians. They probably appreciate being spoken to in a sort of code.
“Obscure to outsiders, resonant with insiders” is what’s going on with Oiselle, too.
Oiselle (the company) is bent on cornering a very specific niche market: women for whom running is central to their lives. Their love of running sets them apart; they may refer to one another as “sisters.” They’re a bit obsessive (a 2:59 marathon, if you please!).
For this audience, a brand name gains value by sounding special, distinctive, even rare. The brand name becomes something of a shibboleth: “a word of pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.” If you stumble over the pronunciation of Oiselle, you’re obviously not a member of the club.
Nevertheless, Oiselle isn’t elitist about its quirky verbal identity. The website is full of playfully avian brand extensions that help outsiders feel like insiders:
The name of founder Sally Bergeson’s blog is “Volée,” which can mean “the flight of birds” or “volley.”
Customers who share photos of themselves wearing Oiselle apparel use the hashtag #FlyStyle—a nice double entendre.
A new collection of lighter-weight running apparel is called Flyte.
Then there’s the -elle ending of Oiselle: French for “she,” it’s a clue about who’s being talked to (and who isn’t). Not for nothing, I like that Oiselle suggests “gazelle,” a fast, graceful animal that lives to run.
Birds aren’t rare in commerce. There’s Angry Birds, of course, and its chirp-alikes (although Flappy Bird flaps no more). A popular sprinkler brand is called Rain Bird. And Twitter’s bluebird is familiar even to those who disdain social media.
Oiselle takes a common, even overplayed metaphor and makes it feel fresh, authentic, and slightly exotic. Yes, you may stumble the first time you try to say the word. But runners stumble, too—and if they’re dedicated, they pick themselves up and press on.
(But it’s a good thing Oiselle is in Seattle and not Portland. The “put a bird on it” jokes would be never-ending.)
A “difficult” name like Oiselle requires a deep, even stubborn commitment on the part of management. It can easily become a liability if you don’t cultivate it and continually infuse it with fresh significance.
Most of all, though, it helps to know your audience. Are they risk-takers and experience-seekers? Then you may want to take that risk and create that experience.
Some names are born bad, others achieve badness, and still others have badness thrust upon them. Here are four bad names, each bad in its own tragic, annoying, or inept way.
There is simply no excuse for the spelling of Ketchuppp.
According to TechCrunch, “Ketchuppp wants to help you meet up with the people you actually like spending time with on a regular basis (or did before social media ate your social life) — and do so in person, not digitally.” (Imagine!) Evidently the founders fell in love with the “catch up” idea, never considered any other name directions or asked for professional advice, and kept fiddling with the spelling until finally they found a dot-com domain for $5.99. (Ketchup.com is for sale; Ketchupp.com—at least the double P would have suggested “app”—redirects to Pinocc.io.) Bad strategy, bad name. And to make matters worse, the web copy repeatedly uses “Ketchuppp” as a verb, which risks genericizing the brand name.
(Also, “Not Just Another Social App” is an I-give-up tagline. Tell us what you are, not what you aren’t.)
It could have been worse, I guess. As one TechCrunch commenter points out, “At least it’s not called KKKetchup.”
Scorecard: Unoriginal concept, tortured spelling. But it’s pronounceable. 30/100.
Ketchuppp is an app and a startup, so we can chalk up its bad name to inexperience. But Aesynt? It’s what McKesson Automation is called now that the division’s has been spun off from McKesson Corporation. And the parent company is an almost 200-year-old American institution with sales of about $122 billion (2012).
Take a minute to consider how you’d pronounce “Aesynt.”
Did you rhyme it with “adjacent” or “nascent,” with a long A sound in the first syllable? Did you focus on the /ae/ vowel cluster and try to connect the name with “aerial” or “aesthetic”? Did you see the “syn” as having something to do with “synthesis” or “synergy,” and pronounce it accordingly?
Now that you know how to pronounce Aesynt, try Lytx.
I’ll go first: I read the name as Lyt-X, or “light-ex.” (I assumed it was following the pattern of SpaceX.) Not so fast! Lytx is the new corporate name for 15-year-old San Diego-based DriveCam. The website gives no pronunciation clues, so we turn to Xconomy (another X name!) for the details:
So “Lytx” rhymes with “critics”? That’s a stretch. The /ly/ cluster can be pronounced at least three ways: as lie, lee, and lih. Yes, “lyric” and “lynx” are pronounced with the lih sound, but in coined names, /ly/ at the beginning of a name usually defaults to lie, especially when the addition of /t/ makes it look like a new spelling of light (see Lytro, Lytron, Lytera).
Scorecard: Tortured spelling, counterintuitive pronunciation, generic concept. Looks cool, though. The CEO’s last name is Nixon, which may explain the X. 30/100.
What pains me about “Blah” is that I’m a big fan of Fly London—I recently discovered the brand and now am the happy owner of several pairs of FL shoes—and I want it to do no wrong. I’m willing to indulge Fly London’s penchant for slightly wacky style names (Yif? Yush? Yoni? Faff?) because so many of the shoes are so fabulous. To be honest, I wouldn’t include the Blah in that category, but I also wouldn’t stigmatize it with a bad name. Blah goes beyond wacky, beyond whimsical; it’s just mean and dispiriting.
Scorecard: Pass the Prozac and lock up the kitchen knives. 0/100.
Do some corporate or product names make you shudder and cringe? Are there names you find so annoying that you can’t bear even to utter them aloud?
I want to know about the names you hate, and why. Is it the sound of the word, its spelling, a personal association? Can a good product or stellar customer service overcome your aversion to a name?
For comparison, consider the related phenomenon of word aversion, the well-documented tendency of some people to detest certain words. (“Moist” is frequently cited.) Read Mark Liberman’s posts on Language Log (start here and follow the links) to learn more about word aversion.
Now leave a comment and tell us about the names that make you cringe.*
UPDATE: And, if you can, tell us why these names bother you.
* Commercial names only, please—companies and products. Let’s leave baby names out of the discussion.
Here’s a naming trend that snuck up on me: names that substitute Y for I. Sometimes the Y stands in for short I, as in Glympse; sometimes it’s pronounced like long I, as in Mynd. The trend is most noticeable among technology startups, but I’ve seen it in retail names, too.
Why have so many companies gotten Y’s? I’m tempted to point to Skype, the voice-over-IP service that was founded in 2003 and acquired eight years later by Microsoft for $8.5 billion. But Skype isn’t an example of letter substitution; the name is said to be a contraction of “sky peer to peer.” And another Y name, Swype, is a year older than Skype.
It’s possible we’re seeing the shadow of Y Combinator, the “seed accelerator” (venture-capital-firm-plus-incubator) founded in 2005. (The firm was named after the higher-order mathematical function.) Sneak in an orthographic homage to your patron? Y not?
Then again, the letter Y has intrinsic graphic appeal. It can resemble a fork in the road, a champagne glass, or a stick figure with outstretched arms.
And let’s not overlook Lazy Domain Syndrome, best summarized as “We couldn’t get a dot-com domain with the dictionary spelling, so we jury-rigged it.” With varying degrees of success, as these 10 names prove.
The accents in these names are acute. It’s the reasoning behind them that’s obtuse.
The little leaf over the E in Tarté Asian Yogurt is represented as an acute accent elsewhere (“The smooth and creamy texture of Tarté is what differentiates our yogurt from those that are thick and chalky with off putting sour tastes”). The founders — Southern Californians with Southeast Asian backgrounds — wanted to communicate the influence of “nearly 200 years of French trade and colonization” on Southeast Asian cuisine.
But slapping on an accented letter—and then ignoring its pronunciation—isn’t the solution. If you spell the name Tarté, you have to pronounce it “tar-TAY”: that’s what an acute accent does. And yet Tarté Asian Yogurt isn’t pronounced “tart-TAY,” it’s pronounced “tart.”
To further accentuate the negative, the website calls Tarté Asian Yogurt “deliciously tart,” which makes the name merely descriptive: a bad thing in trademark law.
The Lé Edge exfoliating tool scrapes off the surface layer of skin, “revealing the newer younger cells and more radiant skin.” And that’s all it does. It doesn’t depilate or moisturize. (It will, however, remove your spray-on tan. And it’ll set you back $34.95 plus shipping and handling.)
I searched in vain for a compelling reason to buy Lé Edge. And I can’t find anything good to say about the name, which is the worst kind of faux-French. “Le” is a French definite article (“the”), but it doesn’t have an accent, and it’s pronounced with a schwa vowel sound—“luh,” very roughly—not “lay,” as Lé Edge’s accented spelling dictates. Sure enough, the product name is pronounced “Luh Edge,” as if the accent weren’t there.
And sometimes it isn’t there, because the website is lazy about consistency.
Also cringeworthy: the cutesy-poo, ungrammatical extension of “Le” (no accent) in text headings: “Le Handle,” “Le Benefits.”
Finally, the wordmark is so poorly executed that’s it’s easy to read the name as “Leedge.”
Gratuitous umlauts in brand names are usually dumb, but gratuitous acute accents are worse: Even monolingual English speakers are likely to have encountered a few acute-accented French words such as sauté and cliché. (Hello, McCafé!) We know what the accent is supposed to do to a word’s pronunciation; undermine our expectations and you undermine our confidence in your brand.