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"Disruptive" Names

Unlike most new novels, The Big Disruption, which was published on October 2, wasn't reviewed the way other works of fiction are. Instead, it was reported on as a news event by publications that rarely cover literature: Fast Company, Recode, Wired Focus, the New York Times's technology section. That's because, for starters, the book was published in its entirety on the online platform Medium, which had never before published a novel, and where it could be read at no cost. It's also because the book's author, Jessica Powell, had worked for several years as Google's vice president of communications. The novel — her first published book — is a funny and pointed satire of the technology industry.

I was interested in what The Big Disruption – "a totally fictional but essentially true Silicon Valley story" – had to say about the tech industry's foibles and folkways. But I also had a professional curiosity about Powell's sources for the character, company, and place names she invented. Often amusing, sometimes cryptic, the names add an extra layer of meaning to the story.

Here's a quick summary of The Big Disruption: Anahata, a giant technology company in California's Silicon Valley, is scrambling to outpace Galt, a smaller startup that's poaching Anahata's employees. A prince-in-exile, Arsyen Aimo, is working as a janitor at Anahata while scheming a return to the throne of Pyrrhia, his fictitious native land. A case of mistaken identity propels Arsyen into a product-management job at Anahata; a rogue group of "moongineers" plans a lunar colony; a sales and marketing honcho is kidnapped; and trouble, inevitably, ensues.

I reached Jessica Powell by email to ask her how she created Anahata, Arsyen, Galt, Pyrhhia, and other names. Her process, it turned out, was sometimes more intuitive than strategic.

Anahata. Powell didn't invent this name; it's a Sanskrit word that in yogic traditions denotes the heart chakra. (A chakra is an energy center. Anahata literally means "unstruck" or "unbroken.") Powell chose it, she told me, because "it spoke to the hypocrisy of the Valley – picking something that some Westerner thought sounded mystical to describe a service that might actually be far more banal."

Arsyen Aimo. This outsider protagonist is never identified by ethnicity. "I wanted Arsyen to be primarily identified by the reader as a prince and an outsider to the Valley," Powell told me. "So I didn't want him to have any of the baggage that might have come from pegging him to a specific country. There are so many things that I'm attacking in this book; I didn't want his origin to be a distraction. So I looked at a lot of names from different parts of the world – Slavic languages, but also African ones – and then just started playing with sound combinations."

Pyrrhia. I guessed that this place name came from pyrrhic: an adjective used to describe a victory with such devastating losses that it's tantamount to defeat. Pyrrhic comes from the name of Pyrhhus, king of Epirus, whose army suffered huge casualties in defeating the Romans in the third century BCE. But Powell said she hadn't made that connection herself. Instead, she started by coining "Embria," the fictional enemy of the fictional "Pyrhhia." She liked the -ia ending – a Latinate suffix that is used to form abstract nouns and is seen in real country and region names from Ethiopia to Lithuania to California, as well as invented ones such as Ruritania (The Prisoner of Zenda) – and she wanted names that "rhymed." If you see "ember" and "pyre" in Embria and Pyrhhia – some sort of fiery connection? – that wasn't Powell's intention. She told me she hadn't even considered it until I brought it up.

Galt. In Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is the designer of a revolutionary car motor and the leader of a strike by "men of talent" against the car company's "collectivist" management. Galt has since been embraced as an anti-government hero among some conservatives and libertarians. "Tech is full of libertarians," Powell observed. "So, yes – it's absolutely an Ayn Rand reference!" There are more than 30 registered trademarks for "Galt" in the (real) U.S. trademark database, including John Galt Solutions, Galtcoin (a cryptocurrency), Galt Investments, and Galt's Gulch Chile, a planned utopian community in South America that was conceived in 2012 and broke down two years later.

Poodlekek. Pyrhhia's capital shares a suffix with other Pyrhhian: Klokikek, Pokikek, Krakikek. Powell envisioned -kek as an equivalent to the -stan in place names such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Stan comes from a Persian word meaning "the place of.") There's a silly sound to Poodlekek that fits its inhabitants' absurd intrigues. Perhaps not coincidentally, pudlekek is a Polish word that means... poodle.

Flitter. "This is one of the few really explicit references in the book to a real-world product," Powell said. "I thought the concept of a Twitter-like service was so bizarre (if ripped from its real-world name and context) that trying to describe it – and not name it – almost seemed too abstract. And, as with Arsyen's origins, I wasn't trying to make a big thing around this product in particular, so I wanted a quick way to make it recognizable to readers and not slow them down. So the product is a bit different from Twitter, but not by much." A Twitter user sends tweets; a Flitter user sends fleets. Just as "Twitter" suggests the chirping of birds, "Flitter" has avian connotations: Many English words associated with birds begin with fl-, including fly, flutter, fledgeling, and flap.

Powell also concocted a suite of real-sounding product and project names: Moodify, Rovix, Fingerbell, Progressa. "These all seemed like legit potential product names," she told me. "Because of trademark issues, you often have to take what sounds like a normal word and then 'deform' it so you can own it legally or buy the internet domain for a reasonable fee. All of these names seemed to fit that thinking." In fact, there are more than 100 real-world brand names that end in -ify, and "Rovix" is one letter away from Rovio, the Finnish game company that developed Angry Birds.

And the title of Powell's book? As I wrote in 2012, "disruption" has been the engine and the motto of the tech industry ever since a 1995 Harvard Business Review article praised disruptive technology as "simple, cheap, and convenient." "The Big Disruption" is both a wink to that buzzword and an acknowledgment that the male-dominated, data-obsessed "monoculture of thought," as Powell put it in a New York Times interview, is ripe for a shakeup.

You can read The Big Disruption on Medium, and follow Jessica Powell on Twitter, where her handle is @themoko. What does that mean, I wanted to know. Her response: "Ha! That was from when I lived in France and watched [the 1937 film] Pépé le Moko. I just liked the sound."

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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:

Wednesday October 24th 2018, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Arlene T.
Progressa, real-sounding product name, from Progresso brand soups.
Friday October 26th 2018, 10:05 AM
Comment by: William W. (San Angelo, TX)
Software engineers build simulations, and writers write novels. Novels are simulations of their own sort. It's a bit of stretch, but this article brings these two ideas together. Characters must be credible, and software simulations must reflect reality. I am not the first to imagine a novel written by a computer (I am sure one already exists). Writing and algorithms make for an interesting blend.
Friday October 26th 2018, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Arlene T.
Written by a computer? Written by monkeys!


"If you give an infinite number of monkeys and infinite amount of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, they could create the complete works of Shakespeare."

"An infinite amount of monkeys over an infinite amount of time created Shakespeare himself, VIA EVOLUTION. So, duh, we've done it already."

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