Let us now praise numbers, the indispensable digits of our quantified lives. Without numbers, we'd be at a loss to count calories, measure rainfall, keep musical time, play Sudoku, or calculate the value of pi.
But numbers also have a function beyond the mathematical: They can serve as words. And sometimes, a number can even be a name.
You probably use a few numbers as shorthand already. You might ask for the 411 about someone or something (from the telephone code for "directory assistance" or "information," used in some U.S. cities all the way back to 1930). You might refer to a missing online page as a 404, from its internet status code number. (Contrary to the legend that says 404 was the number of a room at CERN, where the World Wide Web was developed, the digits simply signify a specific type of client error.) Or you might 86 someone – throw him out – from a place of business. (The origin of "86," which first appeared in the 1930s, is murky, but one plausible theory is that it’s rhyming slang for "nix," meaning "no.")
For decades, print journalists used -30- to end their stories – another custom with uncertain origins. It may have come from Morse code, or from the Roman numerals XXX, or from "3 o'clock." (For more theories, see this American Journalism Review article.) 30 was even turned into the title of a 1959 newspaper drama.
Then there's 420 – pronounced four-twenty, never four-two-oh – which has become shorthand for "cannabis." According to Snopes, 420 entered the lexicon in 1971 as a bit of slang used by a group of high school students in San Rafael, California, who would meet after school, at 4:20 p.m., to smoke weed. Against all odds, the term spread far beyond its original restricted origin to become "semi-respectable," as Snopes puts it. Several cities around the U.S. celebrate "hemp fests" on April 20, and there are "420 tours" in Washington, Colorado, and California – states that have legalized the recreational and medical use of cannabis. And 420 has been incorporated into brand names for retail stores, medical dispensaries, and dating apps. (See my November 2014 blog post for more examples.)
The sources of number-names are, well, innumerable; for every transparent number-name – think of all those 123s and 360s – there are many creative, obscure, and downright quirky examples. Here's a sampling of established and new brands that rely on numerals to tell their name story.
Founded in 1927 as Tote'm Stores (with an Alaskan totem pole in front of the original Dallas location), the convenience-store chain was renamed in 1946 to reflect its hours of operation, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., which were unprecedented at the time. Today most of the stores are open 24 hours.
There are conflicting stories about the name of this household cleaner, invented in 1957 and currently owned by the Clorox company. The company claims that the product was the 409th batch created by two Detroit scientists. But the son of one of those scientists says "409" is a tribute to his mother's birthdate, April 9. The Beach Boys' 1962 song "409" – the title is a reference to a 409cc-displacement Chevrolet engine – was used to market Formula 409 from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
The "6" in the name stood for six dollars, the original room rate of this motel chain, founded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1962. In today's dollars, that translates to $49; the Motel 6 closest to me currently charges $86 per night.
The genetic-testing company, founded in 2006, is named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell. As I noted in a blog post about this name, the number 23 has many other associations as well. Here's another post I wrote about "23" in branding.
Founded in March 2008 as an opinion-poll aggregator, the site takes its name from the number of electors in the U.S. Electoral College. Originally independent, it was acquired by the New York Times in 2010 and sold to ESPN in 2014.
This mysterious number-name represents a reincarnation of Analytics Media Group, which had done advertising strategy for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. During the rebranding process, the internal code name was DataCo Ventures, or DCV … the Roman-numeral equivalent of 605. Read more about 605.
Four Twenty Seven
Based in Berkeley, this company uses the web address 427mt.com. The "mt" stands for "million tonnes," and "427" refers to California's 2020 emissions target, 427 million tonnes (metric tons) of carbon. Read more about Four Twenty Seven.
A technology hub in Chicago, founded in 2012, chose a historically significant date for its name: the year of the Great Chicago Fire, which burned for three days and destroyed thousands of buildings. As 1871.com tells it, "The story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 isn’t really about the fire. It’s about what happened next: A remarkable moment when the most brilliant engineers, architects and inventors came together to build a new city."
Also in Chicago, The 606 comprises five linked parks and a pedestrian walkway, formerly known as the Bloomingdale Trail. The name is taken from the first three digits of all Chicago ZIP codes.
Denver, the Mile-High City, has a city magazine whose name translates that elevation into feet.
"We are standing up to the fossil fuel industry to stop all new coal, oil and gas projects and build clean energy for all," reads the home page at 350.org, a global nonprofit founded in 2008 by the climate journalist Bill McKibben and other concerned citizens. Why 350? Because 350 parts per million is the generally accepted safe upper limit of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.
This quirky name is a numeronym, a word that "uses numbers algorithmically," as Mike Pope explained in a 2012 Visual Thesaurus column. A16Z is the shorthand reference (and the URL) for the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz: first letter A, last letter Z, with 16 letters in between.
I'll close with a name from my own name-development portfolio: SENS8, a home-security device, developed by a Chinese inventor, that combines a motion detector, humidity and temperature sensors, and a night-vision camera. The number 8 serves several purposes here: it's a homophone of the -ate in sensate, a visual stylization of the device's shape, and a nod to Chinese numerology, in which the word for "eight" (bā in Pinyin), sounds similar to words meaning "wealth" and "prosper."
What number-names have you admired – or puzzled over?