Ad and marketing creatives

New Names from (Very) Old Words

In the world of branding, coined and contorted names often hog all the attention. Consider the minor furors over Mondel─ôz (crafted from word parts meaning world and delicious) and Hulu (an "empty-vessel" name, which means it has no inherent meaning); or the hair-pulling caused by many pharmaceutical names, from Humira (pronounced, strangely enough, hu-mare-ah) to Xeljanz.

Less commented-on are the successful contemporary brand names with long pedigrees: "real" dictionary words that have been used by English speakers for centuries. Indeed, some of these words trace their roots back to Old English, spoken by Anglo-Saxons between the fifth and twelfth centuries C.E. If Winston Churchill was right when he said that "broadly speaking ... old words, when short, are best of all," then these are some of the best names money can buy. Here's a baker's dozen—from Old English baker and Middle English dozen—of the most familiar and resonant.

Apple. The global electronics company, founded in 1976, is known for innovation, but its name is antique. In Old English æppel meant "any kind of fruit"; as late as the 17th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts." Fingeræppla—"finger-apples"—were dates in Old English, and eorþæppla ("earth-apples") were cucumbers; appel of paradis was "banana" in Middle English. This generic sense of apple persists in French, where pomme de terre (earth apple) means potato; and in Hebrew, where a tapuach zahav (golden apple) is an orange.

Avast! Founded in 1988 and based in Prague, this company makes widely used antivirus software.  "Avast," which means "hold" or "stop," was adopted into naval English around 1680, probably from Dutch houd vast ("hold fast"). The word has particular relevance for a security company—and the first two letters are a mnemonic for "anti-virus."

Bluetooth. The wireless technology standard was invented in 1994 by the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson; its name is an Anglicized version of Old Norse blátonn, the epithet of Harald, the 10th-century king who united Denmark. Blue and tooth are ancient in English as well: blue came into English from French around 1300 (it originally could mean "light-colored" or "blond" as well as the color of the sky), and tooth has been virtually unchanged except for spelling since Old English.

Caterpillar. Caterpillar to denote the larval form of Lepidoptera entered English in the mid-15th century, possibly as a corruption of French chatepelose, "shaggy cat." A tiny insect may seem to be an odd inspiration for the name of a manufacturer of huge earth-moving equipment, but in fact "caterpillar tractor" as a descriptor has been around since either 1905 or 1907, depending on the source, which means it predates the brand name by at least 18 years. According to one story, in late 1904 the California inventor Benjamin Holt hit on the idea of wrapping treads around tractor wheels; a photographer later declared that the new vehicle "crawled like a caterpillar."

Gap. The global retailer, founded in San Francisco in 1969 as a jeans-and-vinyl-records store, was named for "the generation gap," a term that was in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. The word gap has been around far longer: It's documented from the mid-13th century in English place names, and existed in the same form in Old Norse, where it meant "a chasm."

Hobby Lobby. Founded in 1970 in Oklahoma City, where it still has its headquarters, the craft-supply chain made headlines earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., that the company did not have to pay for insurance coverage for female contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Both hobby and lobby have long histories in the English language: In the late 13th century, a hobyn was a small horse or pony (a sense maintained in "hobby-horse"); by the late 1600s the word had come to mean "favorite pastime or avocation." Lobby was adopted in the 1530s from medieval Latin, where laubia meant "a covered walk in a monastery." By the end of the 16th century it referred to "a large entrance hall in a public building"; the political sense—"a group seeking to influence legislation"—arose in the 1790s in the new United States of America.

Inkling. This publisher of digital content was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and has seen its fortunes rise with the spread of the iPad. Its name, like its business model, has nothing to do with ink, although the word's actual origins are a bit obscure. Inkling—a hint, a suspicion, a vague notion—first appeared in the 14th century, either as an alteration of Middle English ningkiling (hint or suggestion; possibly a variant of French niche) or as the gerund of Middle English inclen (to have an apprehension or misgiving). The -ling suffix, which appears in many English words, most often means "young or small" (duckling, gosling, foundling) or "worthy of disdain" (weakling, hireling, underling). As the linguist Arika Okrent writes in Mental Floss, in Old English -ling was "just a general noun-maker," as in the original senses of "earthling" (someone who works the earth) and "sibling" (someone who is a sib, or blood relative).

Kindle. Amazon's e-reader, introduced in 2007, has as its name an 800-year-old English word meaning "to arouse" or "to set alight." The source is Old Norse kyndill, meaning candle; the developers of the name, Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma, quoted Voltaire: "The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all." The device has handily survived early accusations that "kindle" suggested "book-burning."

Match has meant "one of a pair; equal; wife or husband" since Old English; it's been a verb meaning "to join one to another" since the 14th century. Both senses are apt for the Dallas-based online-dating pioneer, which launched in 1995.

Sprint, the telecom company and Internet carrier, was born in 1978 as a unit of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Sprint has meant "to spring or dart" since the mid-16th century; it has roots in an Old Norse word, spretta. The sense of "to run a short distance at full speed" was first documented in 1871. But the corporate name Sprint—selected in an internal contest—was originally an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony. Few corporate acronyms have been as successful.

Twitter, the 140-character social-media platform, was almost named Jitter or Twitch when it was founded in 2006. Instead, it took its name from a late-14th-century verb, twitern, that meant "to chirp like birds" and was probably imitative of the sound it describes. The noun meaning "a state of continuous excitement" came around in the 1670s. 

Whirlpool. The direct forebear of the home-appliance company was founded in 1911; the Whirlpool Corporation name was chosen in 1950. The name—a potent metaphor for the power of moving water—comes from Old English hwyrfepol, which combined words meaning "to turn" and "small body of water."

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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.