Ad and marketing creatives

Brand Names of the Year for 2017

In December I like to take a backward look at the most interesting brand names of the previous 12 months – not just newsworthy but also linguistically notable. Here are my choices for 2017.

Bonobos. Founded in 2007 as an e-commerce site, the menswear company Bonobos grew into the largest U.S. clothing brand built on the web. This year, it was bought by Walmart for $310 million in cash, an acquisition that was called more significant in terms of retail disruption than the Amazon–Whole Foods deal, also finalized this year. The Bonobos name is a nod to the endangered ape native to the region south of the Congo River. It's a curious choice for a company that sells only men's clothing: Lower-case bonobos live in female-led groups and are notable for their altruism, empathy, and peaceful behavior. The bonobo name was first used in 1954 by two European scientists who may have misspelled Bolobo, the name of a town near where the first specimens were collected.

Bonobo parent and child, via San Diego Zoo.

Gothamist. Gothamist, founded in 2003, was one of the earliest "hyperlocal" news sites; other sites in the network (LAist, SFist, Chicagoist, et al.) followed the -ist naming pattern, but only Gothamist used a nickname, well known to fans of Batman. New York City native Washington Irving is believed to be the first person, in 1807, to call his hometown "Gotham," but the name goes back centuries in England, where it meant "goats' town." Gothamist had been bought in March by Joe Ricketts, the owner of DNAinfo (originally Digital Network Associates); in late October, employees voted to unionize, and on November 2 Ricketts announced that the sites would immediately cease publication. One hundred fifteen reporters and editors lost their jobs.

Juicero. When business schools need a case study of Silicon Valley hype and hubris, it's likely they'll use the Juicero story. The company, founded in 2013, made a $400 machine that squeezed juice from packets of fresh fruit and vegetables, which Juicero sold for $5 to $7 each. The company raised $120 million in venture capital before two Bloomberg reporters discovered that hand-squeezing the packets produced an equivalent amount of juice ... 30 seconds faster than the machine. In September, the company suspended sales and offered refunds to customers. The Juicero name was a blend of juice and the Spanish masculine suffix -ero, which when added to a noun creates a new noun that signifies "someone who works with [original noun]." Thus vaqueros (cowboys) work with vacas (cows); a zapatero (cobbler) works with zapatos (shoes).

Keurig. In mid-November, short videos began appearing on the internet that depicted young white men smashing their Keurig single-cup coffee machines. Why? Well, Keurig – along with at least a dozen other companies – had pulled its ads from Fox broadcasting personality Sean Hannity's shows after Hannity conducted a sycophantic interview with Roy Moore, a candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama who has been accused by several women of molesting them when they were teenagers. Keurig is a Dutch word – ironically, it means "proper" or "decorous," although the company claims it means "excellence" – but the company has always been American. Read more about Keurig.

Mattress Mack. The business name is Gallery Furniture, but everyone in Houston knows at as Mattress Mack, after the name of the owner, Jim "Mack" McIngvale. Mattress Mack made headlines when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast in August and McIngvale opened two of his stores as shelters. (By contrast, a multimillionaire pastor in the area closed his church during the storm.) "Mattress Mack" is a good example of the power of a nickname – especially an alliterative one – to subsume a less-memorable official brand name: compare "Chevy" and "Coke."

Oath. The new subsidiary of Verizon Communications was announced in April; it serves as an umbrella company for Verizon's digital properties, including AOL and Yahoo. The rationale behind the "Oath" name is unclear – AOL's CEO, Tim Armstrong, said he liked it because it rhymes with growth – but oath is well established. It first appeared in Old English as aþe, and signified a solemn declaration invoking God as the witness to the truth of a statement or the binding nature of a promise. By the early 13th century it could also signify a curse or profane statement, a meaning still evident in a popular Australian expression sometimes seen minus its first syllable as "king oath." Read more about Oath.

The Oath logo includes a blue colon for unspecified reasons.

Pepsi. As the wonderful blog Sorry Watch has documented, 2017 was filled with apologies from prominent people and companies. One of the most hastily regretted missteps was committed by Pepsi-Cola, which in early April posted a YouTube ad starring Kendall Jenner that appeared to trivialize the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. The ad was pulled down, and the company made a public apology. Pepsi Cola was introduced in 1893 as "Brad's Drink," from the surname of its inventor, Caleb Bradham. Five years later it was renamed Pepsi Cola: Pepsi from Greek pepsis ("digestion"), and Cola from the cola nuts in the original formula. Historically, Pepsi did extensive marketing to African-Americans through its "negro markets" department; rival Coca-Cola, by contrast, was positioned as a whites-only beverage.

RompHim. What do you call a one-piece shirt/shorts outfit created for men? Not a romper, evidently – that word is too closely associated with women's and children's clothing. So when four business-school classmates launched a Kickstarter in May to fund production of a romper with a zipper fly, they named it RompHim. The name attaches a masculinizing suffix to romp, a verb meaning "to play or frolic" that's been in English since 1709. (Before that it was a noun meaning "a wanton girl.") RompHim follows a trend that includes mancession, manscara, brosé, and other male-marked neologisms. (See my 2009 column for more examples.) Romper as an article of clothing first appeared in 1909, when it described overalls for small children of either sex. "RompHim" is meant to be pronounced as "romp him," but when it appears in all capital letters it might be confused with Hebrew-derived angelic plurals such as seraphim.

Shero. In November Mattel announced its first hijab-wearing Barbie doll, modeled on U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The doll is one in a series of "Sheroes," dolls that Mattel says "inspire girls by breaking boundaries." Shero, a blend of she and hero, is neither new nor original to Mattel (although the company has applied for trademark protection of the name): As Ben Zimmer wrote in his Wall Street Journal language column, the word "has been circulating since the 19th century to refer to women worthy of admiration." Its recent popularity is credited to 1970s feminists like Maya Angelou and Johnetta Cole." In 2008, Merriam-Webster added shero to its Collegiate dictionary.

Barbie Shero doll.

Velar. Range Rover insists the name of its new $100,000 sport-utility vehicle is pronounced ve-LAR and comes from a Latin root that means "to hide," a reference to the first Range Rover's beginnings as a secret project. But that didn't stop linguists from chuckling over the name, which, pronounced VE-lar, means "a sound produced by pressing the back of the tongue against the soft palate," or velum. “I wonder if the Uvular will be next,” wrote one Language Log correspondent. “Somebody must have found the name palatable,” wrote another. Read more about Velar.

See my previous Brand Names of the Year columns: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

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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.