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Brand Names of the Year for 2012

Which brand was most emblematic of the year that's now ending? Facebook, which had a much-ballyhooed initial stock offering in May? Apple, which said in December it would start making some products in the United States instead of in China? Neiman Marcus and Target, which formed an unlikely high-low partnership to sell holiday gifts to two very different audiences?

Any of those brands could be a contender. But they're not on my list. My own choices for Brand Names of the Year made news in 2012, but they also have linguistic and onomastic significance beyond the headlines. (Onomastics is the study of names.) Here they are, in alphabetical order.

Chick-fil-A. The American fast-food chain, founded in 1946 and based outside Atlanta, became the target of both a boycott and a "buycott" in June and July, after the company's chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, made public statements opposing same-sex marriage. The company's name — a phonetic spelling of "chick fillet," with the capital A emphasizing the long vowel sound — is a reminder of an era when simplified renderings of foreign words and names were popular among American businesses. Compare, for example, Chef Boyardee canned pasta products, founded in 1928 by an Italian immigrant, Ettore Boiardi. (The brand spelling was originally simplified even further, to Boy-ar-dee.)

Etch A Sketch. A 52-year-old children's-toy brand got an unexpected boost when an advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney used it as a metaphor for the campaign: "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." I wrote about this metaphorical use of Etch A Sketch in a May 2012 Candlepower column, and I wrote about the "sketch" part of Etch A Sketch in a June 2011 column

FiveThirtyEight. The polling-aggregation blog created by Nate Silver, a statistician and self-described "psephologist" — someone who studies and scientifically analyzes elections — takes its name from the number of electors in the U.S. electoral college. It's a rare example of an obscure numerical reference becoming a successful brand. FiveThirtyEight first attracted serious attention during the 2008 presidential election; it became widely known after the blog moved to the New York Times website, and famous after Silver accurately predicted the 2012 presidential results in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Fundly. Online fundraising — or "crowdfunding," a word coined in 2006 — came of age in 2012, as sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and GoFundMe helped artists and inventors raise seed money for their projects. Fundly, which was founded in 2009, opens the concept to nonprofit organizations, universities, and political campaigns. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum raised more than $230,000 through Fundly before he dropped out of the race. Fundly is noteworthy for another reason: It belongs to a huge cohort of new company names that end in -ly, from Writely and Grammarly to Lover.ly and Parse.ly. (The last two names use the Libyan country domain, dot-ly.) I've collected more than 120 examples of this faux-adverb trend on a Pinterest board.

Furby. The robotic toy, which resembles the offspring of an owl and a hamster, became a mammoth fad when it was introduced in 1998. It sputtered out after 2000 but was revived in September of this year by the toy company Hasbro. The new Furby is furrier — the name is a contraction of "fur ball," with a hint of "fur baby" — and has LCD eyes and an iOS app. Like the original Furby, it's programmed to speak a constructed language, Furbish (not to be confused with the verb that means "to polish"), and to learn new words in English and several other languages. Furbish features a limited number of consonant and vowel sounds and a simple grammar: "sad" is "boo-noo-loo"; "tell me a story" is "wee-tah-kah-wee-loo." Here's a Furbish-English dictionary with audio files.

Hibu. Britain's Yell Group, which publishes Yellow Pages and other directories, changed its name to Hibu in May after five months of work by global branding agency Landor. The old name, which had been used since 2000, was a truncation of "yellow." The new name, pronounced "high-boo," means ... nothing. "Don't read anything into it," chief executive Mike Pocock urged reporters. The Hibu website spins a different tale: "The identity utilises typography with soft shouldered edges like the human body and coloured dots represent the people behind the identity, diversity, connections and conversation."

I wrote about these popular branding dots for the Visual Thesaurus in January 2012.

Mondelēz. In March the global snack-food conglomerate Kraft Foods split into two companies, one of which became Mondelēz International. The name, which is meant to be pronounced "moan-dah-LEEZ," was chosen from among 1,700 names submitted to an employee contest. (One of the losers was Tfark, "Kraft" spelled backward.) According to a corporate press release, "monde" comes from the Latin word for "world," and "delez" is "a fanciful expression" of "delicious." Fortunately, consumers will never have to spell or pronounce this strenuously artificial name: it's strictly a corporate brand.

Paperwhite. Amazon's newest Kindle e-reader promises higher resolution, crisp text, and a built-in light that can be adjusted for all reading conditions. Its real-word name — the paperwhite is a fragrant white flower related to narcissus — is distinctive and effective. It suggests brightness (white light), lightness (the weight of a piece of paper), and a reading experience equivalent to print. The flowery metaphor is also a little romantic, which how many of us feel about reading.

Surface. Microsoft's new tablet device, introduced in June, competes against Apple's iPad with a name that's the opposite of iPad: "Surface" is a real word that suggests elegance, smoothness, and structure. (The word's Latin roots mean "above the form.") As I wrote in my name review, "As a noun, ‘Surface' draws attention to the device's near-two-dimensionality and its glossy exterior; as a verb it suggests ascent: to surface is to come up for air." The word "surface" also connects subtly to Microsoft's Windows brand: windows are all surface, all transparency.

Twinkies. The "golden sponge cake with creamy filling" ceased to be manufactured in November, when parent company Hostess Cakes — the largest wholesale baker and distributor of baked goods in the United States — announced it would close all its plants. Twinkies got its name through pure serendipity: James Dewar, the manager of the Illinois plant that was starting to make the cakes in 1930, noticed a billboard advertising Twinkle Toe Shoes and decided a shortened version of the name would do just fine.


Via Chicago Tribune. The mascot is called "Twinkie the Kid."

Twinkies acquired a sinister connotation during the 1979 trial of Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who shot and killed the mayor and a fellow supervisor. White's lawyers blamed excessive snack-food consumption for their client's derangement, and reporters quickly dubbed this argument "the Twinkie defense."
By the way, don't mourn Twinkies just yet: the brand may be acquired by another company.

Here's last year's list of notable brand names. Which brand names stood out for you in 2012?


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 11th 2012, 2:52 AM
Comment by: Philippe M. (Glendale, CA)
I'd like to suggest a different explanation for "Mondelēz" : the French "mon délice", which means "my (culinary) delight". Just like Chick-fil-A it would then be a simplified rendering of foreign words. Why that hunch? No skills, really... I'm originally French and that jumped at me! Thanks for a great article.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Bonjour, Philippe! Your explanation makes excellent sense. However, the Mondelēz corporate announcement insists on a different story.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Diane S. (Chicago, IL)
Do not like "Surface." Can't imagine saying, "Say, is that a Surface? That's cool." Just a little cumbersome. And if we're going to analyze the word, not really associated with productive.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Diane S: I happen to like the Surface name, but that's neither here nor there. My intention was to present the most notable names of the year, not the "best." The Surface name represents a breakthrough for Microsoft, which has traditionally resorted to lackluster branding strategies (XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Phone, etc.).
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 7:16 PM
Comment by: Arlene T.
Also from the French – hibou (hee-boo) is their word for owl. I would be inclined to pronounce "Hibu" the same way and conjure the associated image. If Hibu is to be a global brand, I would expect similar reactions from French speakers and speakers of other European languages.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 8:16 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Arlene: As with Mondelēz, I just call 'em like I see 'em. Hibu is not a global brand but a British one, with an English-speaking audience, and the company clearly intends the name to be pronounced “high-boo.” I seriously doubt anyone involved gave a hoot about owls, or French people.

For more on Hibu, see my blog post about the renaming.
Wednesday December 12th 2012, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Jessica L. (ENGLEWOOD, CO)
"'Don't read anything into it,' chief executive Mike Pocock urged reporters." Says a man with the name of Pocock. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

And re the Surface, my husband has one and people literally have asked him "Hey, is that a Surface? That's cool."
Wednesday December 12th 2012, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Arlene T.
Thanks, Nancy – great post about the renaming, the French owl – and the verbal/visual juxtaposition hibu hulu.
On speaking both names together, there is a feeling of "dance like there's no one watching you".

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