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.
Two years ago, the American Dialect Society selected hashtag as its word of the year for 2012. Last week, for its 2014 word of the year, the ADS chose an actual hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, the slogan that—as the press releaseput it—“took on special significance in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the failure of grand juries to indict police officers in both cases.” It was the first time in the contest’s 25 that a hashtag had been selected for the distinction. The vote at the Hilton in Portland, Oregon, was nearly unanimous, but the response has been anything but. (“It’s not a word” and “It’s too political” were two of the negative reactions.) Read Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee, on the WOTY selection (and on other words discussed at the meeting). For supporting viewpoints, see Anne Curzan’s post on the Lingua Franca blog(“The linguistic work of hashtags is especially interesting”) and linguist/librarian Lauren B. Collister’s post on her own blog(“a pretty historic moment for the field of linguistics for a number of reasons”). For a dissenting view, see Schnaufblog: “Call me old school -- I like the idea of a word as a combination of form (sound, gesture, writing) and meaning (lexical or grammatical) that can combine with other words according to the rules of grammar to form a clause.”
From “Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry,” Jessica Pressler’s long and enlightening story about tech startups in the “laundry space,” published online May 21 in New York magazine:
Thus, in the winter of 2012, two rival laundry sites in the mold of [restaurant delivery service] Seamless launched simultaneously in New York. One was Brinkmat, founded by two Goldman Sachs software engineers. (“Like, ‘brink’ like ‘on the brink,’ ” explains founder Tim O’Malley, “and ‘mat’ like laundromat.” Awkward pause. “Names are hard,” his partner adds.)
Names are hard—who knew? But not sufficiently hard, it seems, to merit paying an experienced professional for assistance.
American cities in the second decade of the 21st century are awash (Pressler’s apt word) in new-model outsourced laundry services summoned by smartphone app.* Other laundry startups mentioned in the article include SpotlessCity (the second of the two rival sites that launched in New York in 2012), Washio, FlyCleaners, Cleanly (yep, another -ly name!), Sudzee, Drop Locker, Laundry Locker (the two Lockers are unrelated), Prim, Bizzie Box, Sfwash, Wash Then Fold, Rinse, and Your Hero Delivery (yep, another hero!).
Washio, the focus of the story, is based in Santa Monica. Its laundry shleppers are called “ninjas”:
They chose the name ninjas in part to signify the company’s relationship to Silicon Valley, where the title is handed out freely. “It stems from Disney, which called everyone a cast member,” explains [CEO and co-founder Jordan] Metzner, in his stonery-didactic way. “All of these nameifications, or whatever, is basically to get everyone to think they’re not doing what they are actually doing, right? No one wants to be the trash guy at Disneyland. ‘No, I’m a cast member.’ At Trader Joe’s, they’re all associates. What does that mean? It means nothing, but I would rather be an associate than a cashier. It helps people elevate themselves and think they are doing something for a greater good.”
Read the rest of the story, which offers a deliciously jaundiced take on contemporary startup culture. Pressler doesn’t hold back:
Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial.
* I confess I’m mystified by the obsession with laundry as a problem to be solved. Of all the necessary household chores, I find laundry to be the most satisfying—the newer machines are wonderfully efficient, and you end up with a clean, fragrant product! I enjoy ironing, too, but in this as in so many other areas I am evidently an outlier.
From whence the name? It’s a play to make the word “mortgage” less weighty and ponderous. According to [founder Patrick] Browne, the company thought that “S’moretgage could be a nice way to make that word sound a bit less intimidating.” Once you learn how to spell it, it’s not too hard to remember.
A couple of comments:
1. Memo to TechCrunch: It’s just “whence”—the word means “from where,” so “from” is redundant.
2. “Once you learn how to spell it” is a lousy way to launch a name. If you really want to compare indebtedness to an empty-calorie children’s snack, at least make the spelling easy to swallow. “S’mortgage” would work just fine—no need for the E in the middle, which makes the pronunciation look like it rhymes with “floret-rage.”
Neither the Smore website nor the TechCrunch story gives any background on the name, but the campfire icon drives home the association. (The company is based in Palo Alto, and its founders appear from their names to be Israeli.) According to TechCrunch:
The service, which mostly targets non-technical users, says it currently has over 500,000 registered users, who have published over 1 million flyers. Usage and revenue currently growing at about 15 percent to 20 percent per month.
“What if you never had to worry about food again?” asks the home page of Soylent. The company makes a product with the same name: a nutrient-rich food substitute designed to replace traditional meals.
“The packaging is space age, with minimalist black-and-white lettering, reminiscent of Paul Mitchell shampoo.” – “The End of Food”
The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe traveled to Studio City, California, to interview Soylent’s inventor, Rob Rhinehart, and one of his partners, Dave Renteln, for “The End of Food,” published in the May 12 issue of The New Yorker. Inevitably, the subject of the name came up:
I asked if they really planned to call their product Soylent—which, in my unofficial field research, had evoked, at best, unpleasant associations with “soy” and “soil,” and, at worst, alarmed recitations of the movie catchphrase “Soylent Green is people!”
“Everybody has suggested changing the name,” Rhinehart said. “Investors, media people, my mom.”
“My mom, too,” Renteln said.
Rhinehart said that he liked the self-deprecating nature of the name, and the way it poked fun at foodie sensibilities: “The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright—this is the opposite.”
Anyway, he said, a lot of young people never got the memo about Soylent Green’s being people. “If you Google ‘Soylent,’ we’re in front of the movie.” He added, “Remember, Starbucks was the guy from ‘Moby-Dick.’ ”
I like the Soylent name—and the whole never-worry-about-food, anti-foodie premise—and wish Rhinehart much success. But he isn’t the first entrepreneur to seize on the “Soylent” name. Soylent Green Crackers (“People Food”) was developed by San Francisco’s Parallax Corporation as a conversation piece and a way to bring an imaginary, movie-spawned idea to life. Soylent Green Crackers have been around for a few years; I wrote about them in September 2011. They’re out of stock on Amazon.
For the hacker crowd, there’s a Make Your Own Soylentwebsite with hundreds of recipes, many of them fancifully named: Metroid Nootropics, Bachelorette Chow, Dingosaurus_KetoFood, Soylent in Paris, Rainbow Unicorn Feed.
The business and techbloggers who covered the episode found nothing amiss in the story. But to anyone who knows how business names work, it betrays the naïveté of the show’s creators.
The protagonist of “Silicon Valley” is a programmer, Richard, who’s inadvertently developed a file-compression algorithm. For reasons that haven’t yet been explained (and may never be), he named the algorithm—and the start-up he creates around it—“Pied Piper.”
Everyone but Richard hates the name. But that’s not his biggest headache.
A San Francisco startup called Gramr has blasted past its $15,000 Kickstarter goal in less than two weeks and appears likely to reach its “stretch goal” of $50,000. Before I give you any links or clues, try to guess from the name alone what Gramr makes. Language-learning flash cards? National Grammar Day T-shirts? An app that corrects your faulty subject-verb agreement?
No, no, and no. Gramr looks and sounds exactly like “grammar,” but the company has a completely different mission.
Need fast feedback about a naming dilemma? On a tight budget? You can now hire my expert naming services by the minute—yes, one-sixtieth of an hour—through Clarity.fm*, a year-old San Francisco company that connects entrepreneurs with experts, over the phone, for advice on business challenges.
In a 15-, 30-, or 45-minute phone conversation (or longer, if you have the stamina), I can review your naming objectives and criteria, give you a quick professional critique of your top name choices, and point out areas you may have overlooked. You can ask me questions about product names, company names, taglines, domains, or brand architecture. There’s no obligation to hire me for further naming work, but if you’d like to do so we can talk about that, too.
Yesterday, for example, I spoke with a couple of entrepreneurs in Vancouver, BC, who wanted my opinion of their four top name candidates. In a fast-paced 17-minute call, I gave them my impressions of the names and advice for a follow-up round of creative work.
It’s Portmanteauber! But first, let’s welcome the return of the Name of the Year Tournament, “a celebration of unconventional names and the people who wear them.” After a 30-year run, NOTY’s originators stepped down in 2012; the tournament is now run “by two recent graduates of a university near Chicago” with “boring names” who are carrying on the tradition under a new URL. This year’s brackets include Hurricane Weathers, Fancy English, and Leila Bossy-Nobs. Go forth and vote!
“One of my biggest language pet peeves is the phrase ‘That’s not a word’,” writes James Callan, a content strategist and linguistics aficionado in Seattle. So he launched the Nixicon “to find and retweet people on Twitter who claimed that something isn’t a word.” In less than a week he’d discovered and circulated more than 200 “not a word” tweets.
A few days after starting this, one thing is clear: people really hate irregardless, ain't, and mines.
As for the Nixicon name, James says it’s “a portmanteau of ‘nix’ (meaning ‘no’) and ‘lexicon’.”
Speaking of non-words and portmanteaus, in May 2012 a group of lexicographers, poets, and authors coined “phubbing”—a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”—to describe “the phenomenon of ignoring people in front of you in favor of paying attention to your phone,” according to an article in Advertising Age. Since then, the ad agency McCann Melbourne has been seeding the word—on Facebook and the StopPhubbing website, among other platforms—as a way to create interest in, and sell more copies of, a new edition of Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. The Wordability blog (which slightly misrepresents the word’s origin) calls phubbing “the best new word of the year” and says the word’s rise demonstrates “all that is good about modern word formation.”
Watch Macquairie’s video about the birth and spread of “phubbing.”
Why do some invented words—gobbledygook, blurb, and smog, for example—catch on? Ralph Keyes writes in The American Scholar that “need and usefulness” and the ability to “capture a widespread sensibility” are key indicators. So is playfulness: “A remarkable number of terms we use today originated in the speech bubbles and captions of cartoonists,” Keyes observes.
Thirty days hath Septaper? In Word Routes, Ben Zimmer looks at “the financial word of the moment,” taper, and how it gave rise to the portmanteaus Septaper (a gradual slowdown of bond-buying in September) and Octaper (ditto, for October). “September through December seem to lend themselves to creative blending,” Ben writes, “perhaps because the names form a prosodic pattern: each is a three-syllable sequence with a stressed middle syllable (i.e., an amphibrach) and ends in -er.” My own “portmonthteau” sightings include Socktober, Sharktober, OAKtober (celebrating the Oakland A’s), and Archtober (pronounced, perplexingly, ark-tober). (And see my 2012 post on X-toberfest.)