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.
Virgance deviates from "divergence" by only a couple letters. Am I the only one who feels the hard g there is intuitive? I wonder if my ability to intuit that pronunciation has to do with my horrible spelling.
Posted by: Tonydwhite | June 19, 2012 at 11:23 AM
Some how I typed divergence but I meant "vergence." Anyway my guess is it doesn't bother me as much because the end and beginnings are close enough.
Posted by: Tonydwhite | June 19, 2012 at 11:29 AM
My current favorite worst company name is Bubo Publishing - a self-publishing ebook company. I can only assume they never actually looked the word up in a dictionary at all!
Posted by: Solidus | June 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM
@Solidus: I wrote about another Bubo--a winery--here: http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2008/02/in-english-not.html
@Tonydwhite: The rule in English is that G is hard before O, U, and A, and soft before E and I. There are very few exceptions; the only ones that come to mind are "margarine" and the mostly British "gaol."
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | June 19, 2012 at 11:42 AM
I guessed the correct pronunciation for Virgance. I could argue that the name Virgil had something to do with it, but more likely is that I have a soft spot for a soft G because the G in my last name is often mistakenly made a hard G.
This post also reminds me of the story of the Chevy Nova not selling in Mexico. Nova = no va = no go. It did better when it was renamed.
Posted by: D. Woodger | June 19, 2012 at 11:46 AM
@D. Woodger: "Nova" does not mean "no va" in Spanish. You may have missed the end of my post:
>>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.)<<
There's an embedded link to my post about "Nova."
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | June 19, 2012 at 11:57 AM
If we must have an example of a General Motors vehicle with an unfortunate name, let it be Buick's LaCrosse, which was sold briefly in Canada as the Allure because in French Canadian slang, "LaCrosse" describes a particular sexual act, solitary in nature.
But Buick eventually pulled up its big-boy pants and slapped the LaCrosse badge on the Canadian cars, pointing out that no one seemed to have any problem with the actual sport called lacrosse.
Story via driving.ca: http://www.driving.ca/news/story.html?id=1962487
Posted by: CGHill | June 19, 2012 at 12:08 PM
...no one really accepts the brand name Mondelez, with the exception of their board of directors.
Posted by: IVV | June 20, 2012 at 12:10 PM