Ad and marketing creatives

How Words Become Names (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I talked about three common ways to create product and company names: from people's names, from connecting two words, and by creating a blend or portmanteau. As naming exercises go, those three techniques are among the most basic. In this installment we move into Intermediate Naming: techniques that require a bit more mastery of the workings of language but can reward you with distinctive, memorable names.

Affixed words. An "affix" is a word element that can't stand alone -- a prefix, suffix, or infix (a word part inserted in the middle of a word, like Homer Simpson's "saxomaphone"). Affixes can be descriptive, like the bio- prefix in BioMedicines, BioPure, and Bio-Synthesis; or the -cast suffix in Tubecast or Fancast. Other affixes are playful or hip: Napster, the music-sharing site, owes a lot to "hipster"; it in turn inspired Friendster, Dogster, Feedster, and other sound-alikes. Other suffixes du jour include the -ist in Gothamist and Sartorialist and the -ish in Ticketish and Revish. Two Google applications -- the Writely word processor and Presently presentation software -- made clever use of the adverbial suffix. To search for affixes that aren't overused, get yourself a copy of Michael Sheehan's Word Parts Dictionary, which includes an alphabetical list of word parts, a concept finder, and a reverse dictionary organized by category (animals, the environment, and so on).

Invented words. Most coined names are crafted of meaningful word parts (sometimes called morphemes); it's the rare name -- and the even rarer successful name -- that's a true "empty vessel." Pharmaceutical names depend for their success on the positive associations consumers make with the sounds of the words: think of Claritin (from clarity), Viagra (from vigor, vitality, and other words), and Prozac (from prosaic). Global corporations often give themselves made-up names to avoid sounding provincial: Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) draws on its association with "altitude"; Cision (an international "reputation management" firm) hopes its name makes you think of "precision" and "decision" (and not "incision"). More and more, new technology companies -- especially "Web 2.0" companies -- are giving themselves invented names like Zafu, Meebo, and Thoof simply because those Internet domains are available. Beware: It takes a lot of money and effort to create a viable brand from a wholly invented name, and few startup companies have the necessary resources. One famous exception: Kodak, which was coined by company founder George Eastman. He started with the letter K, which he found "strong" and "incisive," and kept trying different combinations of letters until he discovered a word that was short, easy to pronounce, and meaningless in all major languages. It surely didn't hurt that Ko- sounds like co-, a Latin prefix meaning "with" or "together."

Phrases. Can't come up with one perfect word that defines your product or service? Maybe more words are the solution. Many corporate or product names are actually brief descriptive or metaphorical phrases. For example, By The Book is the name of a software package for churches and nonprofits; Meet With Approval is a meeting arranger; Teach the People calls itself "the people-powered university." Think too of the phrasally named nonprofit organizations Habitat for Humanity and People for the American Way. There's even a name-development firm in San Francisco whose name is a short sentence: Eat My Words specializes in -- you guessed it -- food and beverage naming.

When you're looking for a name, it's a good idea to try all of these approaches. If nothing else, the exercise will fire your creative synapses. And if after working through them all you still haven't found the right name, don't give up. Next month we'll move into Advanced Naming territory and explore three additional sources for names.

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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:

Monday November 26th 2007, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Re. How words become names.

Sometimes, names are devised to conceal the real ownership or agenda of a company. Those names are like cosmetics that hide the honest complexion of a person or article.
Monday November 26th 2007, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Jarrett N.
My wife and I recently started a new company, and naming it was quite an adventure. It was akin to writing a tagline, but more difficult, just as writing a tagline is more difficult than writing longer copy. At the same time, it was more satisfying to find a winning combination, one that I think captures the essence of the company.
(By the way, we settled on "Print&Impress"... the business is small-run custom stationary, using a letterpress-style machine that imprints foil onto paper, cardboard, ribbon, vinyl, or leather.)
Monday November 26th 2007, 7:48 PM
Comment by: Tim D.
Regarding Philip Morris's transition to "Altria," I should like to suggest another likely association: "altruistic."
Showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others would seem a most desirable image for a tobacco company to project.
Wednesday January 23rd 2008, 11:12 PM
Comment by: John W.
Very interesting and worthwhile article written by Nancy Friedman who is a very talented lady. Her writing is a pleasure to read, is informative , witty and pithy. I will utilize her suggestions to name a new business and I have confidence that the effort will be sucessful. Thanks for having such creative articles,. John
Thursday January 24th 2008, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Brendan L.
I've been tasked to create a name list today and - Lo and Behold - your article was on my homepage this AM. Thanks for the jumpstart.

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The first part of Nancy's look at how words become names.
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