Ad and marketing creatives

"Microstyle": The Word Factory

Earlier this week, we featured an excerpt from Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson, a branding expert who runs the website The Name Inspector. Here we continue Johnson's discussion of how "the crowded space of names might create a need for more complex ways to create names."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher we met in Chapter 8, compared the lexicon of a language to an old city. The grammatical words — auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and such — he likened to the ancient city center. There you find odd nooks and crannies that have been preserved for centuries. The vocabularies of mathematics and other technical fields he compared to orderly new subdivisions. To extend the analogy in an obvious way, brand names, URLs, and other such purpose-driven neologisms are the storefronts in the bustling commercial strips and shopping malls of the language. New ones pop up all the time, and a few succeed and become enduring parts of the landscape.

Brand names, in particular, are an interesting species. Unlike most other neologisms, they sometimes seem to be made out of whole cloth: Nerf, Kodak, Oreo. They're highly artificial, designed with great care for commercial purposes, but they're bona fide words of our language. Some even make the transition from proper noun to common noun or even verb ("googled" anyone lately?). Consider some of the words that started life as proprietary names: cellophane, granola, jungle gym, martini, minivan, novocaine, pablum, pancake makeup, xerox. The list goes on.

Names don't just represent brands; they start brands. The ideas and feelings that a name evokes provide the scaffolding for a brand. Consider the name Google. Even if you don't know it's based on googol, a word coined by a child for a very large number, you probably get a playful, almost goofy vibe from it. Maybe you associate it (consciously or not) with the cartoon character Barney Google, the expression "googly eyes," or representations of baby talk like "goo goo ga ga." Now think of how well that vibe goes with Google's simple interface, the primary colors of its logo, and its reputation as a fun and creative place to work. Now try to imagine the same logo and reputation being associated with the name Microsoft. Microsoft countered Google's playfulness with a fun search engine name of its own: Bing.

Of course, many names are new coined words (or phrases). Most are created using the same processes that give birth to other new words. People combine existing words, and parts of words, to create new words. Take the word job, stick on the suffix -ster, and you've got the name Jobster. Blend the words technology and literati (or digerati) and you've got the name Technorati. And so on.

Usually people take the raw material of our natural shared language to construct artificial words, but today's linguistic environment is so crowded with artificial words that they've become part of the raw material. Take the name Jobdango. Why is that dang -dango ending dangling there? You could argue that this name blends job and fandango, the name of a dance. But there's really no sensible motivation for such a blend. Rather, this name seems to be a blend of job and the name Fandango, for a website that sells movie tickets. The name Fandango is based on the word for the dance, but it's kind of a pun, because the site is for movie fans. Jobdango seems to be sort of a nod to the movie ticket site; it says, "I'm like Fandango for jobs."

So the artificial word Fandango, based on the natural word fandango, becomes the raw material for the artificial word Jobdango. The artificial is built out of the artificial. It's like what you find in music with sampling, or in food with the Dairy Queen Blizzard, which uses candy bars as raw ingredients in milkshakes. And now -dango has taken on a life of its own, appearing in names like Handango, Zoodango, and even GodDango. It has become what linguists call a cranberry morpheme, a meaningless word part that, like cran-, is left when you chop a meaningful part off a word.

The -dango phenomenon shows the historical process of language change being initiated and accelerated through naming. It invites another analogy to biological evolution: naming is to language change as breeding is to evolutionary change in domestic animals. Humans speed up and direct the process of evolution by selecting for traits that they like in their animal companions — random variation and artificial selection, if you will. It's similar with naming. For the most part it works with word formation strategies that lead to language change organically but accelerate the process through conscious human choice. The emergence of the -dango cranberry morpheme is a good example. It's possible to imagine a historical scenario in which the name Fandango is reanalyzed by speakers as including the word fan, and that leads to the emergence of the -dango suffix in an organic way.

Where will this process lead? The crowded space of names might create a need for more complex ways to create names. A blend, for example, is normally made out of just two seamlessly combined words, but it can be made out of three. The second part of the name Bare Escentuals manages to combine the words essential, scent, and sensual. A company in Seattle is called Fabjectory, which is a blend of fabject and object. But fabject itself is a blend of fabricated and object, coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. This is a complicated name, but complexity is a natural adaptation to a challenging environment.

The Verbal Real Estate Market

Just how competitive is the space of names? In 2006 there were already more than six million businesses in the United States (and more than half a million new ones were created that year alone). Of course, every one of them has a name.

The US Patent and Trademark Office has over a million and a half active trademark registrations, and more than 350,000 new registrations were filed in 2009. To put that into perspective, by some estimates the average English-speaking adult knows about 40,000 words. The number of active US trademarks is more than thirty times larger than the common English vocabulary (and the number of existing business names is about six times the number of active trademarks).

As daunting as the number of business names and trademarks is, things look even worse when you consider the web. Naming is no longer just for corporate marketing departments and entrepreneurs who invest their life savings in a business. It's for everyone with an interest in personal branding. And that's everyone. This is the age of blogs, micro-startups, and eBay stores run by people in their pajamas. All these projects need names.

This universal participation makes naming more difficult than ever. The web is now a crucial marketing platform, and naming means finding available Internet domain names. The vast universe of existing domain names makes it difficult to be both meaningful and distinctive.

Internet infrastructure company VeriSign reports that by the fourth quarter of 2009, over eighty million ".com" domains were registered and 192 registrations across all the top-level domains (".org," ".net," etc.), with about eleven million new registrations made in the last quarter of 2009. According to Technorati CEO David Sifry's report "The State of the Live Web" for 2007, there were more than seventy million blogs, and 120,000 new ones were created every day.

As the forces driving the artificial growth of our vocabulary grow stronger, things are looking bright for neologism.

Excerpted from Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson. Copyright 2011 by Christopher Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 11th 2011, 11:58 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
What's in a name? What's in a word? I appreciate all the data and pondering re/new wording. Some of the numbers are boggling to be sure. Beyond that, I find the human imagination that can continue this amazing activity even more boggling. Thank you, Christopher Johnson,for taking the time and effort to jot down your ponderous research and imaginings.
Friday August 12th 2011, 6:04 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
The article is representing lots of necessary information for the so called brand names.So, brands are sources of many things.
We all google, in this planet earth in every country, more than fifty percent people are now familiar with these brand names as search engine and for other purposes. But, the story behind all those brand names were unknown to us.
Specially, in USA and western countries, branding is now a trend.Sometimes, I come across with peculiar brand names. It generates Euphemism.

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Our first excerpt from Christopher Johnson's new book, "Microstyle."
The late Edward Gelsthorpe had a powerful influence on how we make words.
Coined names tend to be crafted from meaningful word parts, or morphemes.