The year is still young, but I'm prepared to go out on a limb and declare 2011 the Year of the Q-Name. From Quid to Quora, from Qajack to Qire, from Qrank to Qponomics, Q names are the queens and kings (qings?) of contemporary naming. Evidence? On CrunchBase, a directory of technology companies, I counted 405 Q names. And that was after eliminating companies that incorporate place names like Qatar and Qingdao.
Why is the seventeenth letter of the alphabet leading the pack? I have some theories, but first I want to digress slightly and talk about naming trends in general.
All names go in and out of fashion. Take baby names: "Ethel" was the eighth-most-popular girls' name in the 1890s, but it hasn't ranked among the top 1,000 US names since the 1970s. (My source is the interactive and highly addictive Baby Name Voyager.) On the other hand, apparently no one in the United States had thought of naming a baby "Nevaeh"—"heaven" spelled backward—until around 2000. In 2007 the name shot up to 37 in the Social Security Administration database.
It's much the same with company and product names, which are subject to cultural shifts, trends, and preferences. The impact is most immediate with technology names, because of the fast-moving nature of the industry; but we see many of the same naming trends in fast food, retail, and other fields.
Into the 1990s, computer companies that wanted to look up-to-date followed the word-part-blend model: Microsoft, CompuServe, Infoseek, WorldCom. (So did many other companies, like CitiBank, MassMutual, and PacBell.) Then came the dot-com bubble and a proliferation of giddy monikers like Flooz, FogDog, and marchFIRST, and Boo, along with generic names like Pets.com, eToys, and Garden.com. Companies that wanted to distinguish themselves from the newcomers opted for formal-sounding mock-Latin names: Lucent, Agilent, Altria.
Out of the ashes of the dot-com bust of the early 2000s came new companies whose names created, or mimicked, new formulas. Double-Os like Squidoo, ooVoo, Doostang, and Grabaloo, most likely named in hopeful imitation of Google and Yahoo, seemed cool for a while. In 2006 and 2007 we saw a cluster of K-names: Kindle, Kontera, Kerpoof, Kerplunc, Kijiji, and Kublax (and also the silent-K names like Google's Knol).
And who could forget all the recent names under the influence of texting abbreviations? Consider Flickr, Rdio, Stiqr, Butns, and even Kevutu (French texting slang for "Que veux-tu?", meaning "What do you want?").
Outside of technology, trends differ—but they still matter a lot. In the pharmaceutical industry, there's been an uptick over the last two decades in drug names beginning with Z or X: According to a report in the British Medical Journal, the number of brands beginning with a Z increased by more than 400%; those beginning with an X increased by 130%. And those statistics don't include the many drug names that incorporate Z or X elsewhere in their names, from Flomax to Celebrex to Trazodone. One explanation: the high Scrabble values of those letters.
Which brings us to Q, which not incidentally is also a high-Scrabble-value letter.
Brand names that start with Q aren't new, of course: think of Quaker (oil or oats), Q-tips (originally called Baby Gays; now there was a smart change!), and Quonset. (Quonset huts have been around since World War II; the US trademark for "Quonset" was granted in 1972.) The contemporary craze for Q-names, however, may have gotten its start in 1989 with the naming of the Infiniti Q45 car model. There had been many alphanumeric car-model names before then, but none using Q; reportedly, Infiniti's parent company, Nissan, paid a naming consultant $75,000 to suggest "Q" and "J"—which the consultant called "utterly unused letters"—for model names. That's $37,500 per letter, a record sum that may never be surpassed. And the idea wasn't even original: the "Q" probably came from "Q-car," a British term for a "sleeper," a vehicle that disguises a high-performance engine behind an unassuming exterior.
Lately, though, Q-names have taken off in some unexpected directions, thanks to the letter's inherent flexibility. Normal rules of English orthography demand that Q be followed by U, which is the case in real-Latin-word names such as Quora, a new question-and-answer site, and Quid, which develops tools to make technology developments visible. But Q also appears as a replacement for K in coined names like Qloud, Qontext, Qlarity, Qosmos, ReQall and Aloqa. And although the pronunciation isn't always transparent, Q sometimes represents the syllable "cue," as in Qliance (a medical group headquartered in Seattle), Qdoba (a chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants), and Qriocity (a streaming-entertainment system from Sony, pronounced "curiosity").
In some Q-names, Q's role is ambivalent. QWIKI, for example, is a question-and-answer wiki—a community-built website—whose logo is spelled in capital letters. So is it pronounced "Q-wiki" (my first guess) or "quickie"? (The latter, it turns out.) How about QIAGEN—all caps again—a German-based company which makes sampling and assay technology for lab workers? Is it "kwee-a-gen" or "key-a-gen"? Or maybe "chee-a-gen," in the Chinese manner? None of the above: it's KY-a-gen, the first syllable rhyming with "sky."
And there are some Q names that are simply head-scratchers. If you had no context, you might pronounce Qsine as though it were a calculus function—cue-sign—but in fact it's the name of a restaurant aboard a Celebrity Cruises ship, and it's pronounced "cuisine." ("Queasine" might describe how you feel after dining in heavy seas.) Qrank, an online trivia game, could conceivably be pronounced Q-rank (Q for "questions") or crank. (It's the latter. Go figure.) Or take Qire, a British company that designs "intelligent voice messaging systems." But the spelling's not very smart: the name could be pronounced "quire," "kire," or "cue-ire." (I deduced that it's "quire" only after spotting an email address that uses "enqire.")
Why Q? Possibly because it's a chameleon. Q can represent question, quantity, quality, quiz, and quantum. In the worlds of marketing and media, a Q Score or Q Rating is a measure of a subject's popularity; there, the Q stands for "quotient," as it does in IQ—another favorable connotation. In the Star Trek series, Q was an omnipotent character who came from the Q Continuum. In the James Bond novels and movies, Q is the head of Q Branch, the fictional research-and-development arm of the British Secret Service. Avenue Q is a long-running on-and-off-Broadway musical set on a fictional street in an "outer-outer borough" of New York City; the Q here may suggest "queer." (Several of the show's characters are homosexual.)
In the sciences, Q may represent a reaction quotient, an electric charge, a quasar, or any of more than a dozen other phenomena. A Q clearance gives nonmilitary personnel access to secret U.S. Department of Energy information. Q-ships—also known as "mystery ships" because of their concealed weapons—were used by the British Royal Navy in both world wars; Q-cars took their name from Q-ships.
I began this column with a prediction, and I'll end with another. As with any fashion, Q-names will soon seem overexposed and overworked—so 2011!! What will replace them as the Next Big Name Thing? Sorry—my crystal ball just clouded over.