Ad and marketing creatives

Truly, Madly, Deeply... BucketListly?

If you've spent time lately in the world of startup brands, as I have, you've almost certainly noticed a conspicuous trend. Maybe the penny dropped as you searched for recipes on Yummly or bought home-delivered meals from Feastly. Perhaps you've skimmed headlines on Reportedly, Collectively, or Newsly. Or you've played games on Scopely, tracked gasoline usage with Fuelly, or researched colleges on Admittedly.

Names that end in -ly: They're dominantly, overwhelmingly omnipresent. Real-word names (Avidly, Urgently, Namely). Coined names (Adviously, Canvsly, Guesterly). Head-scratcher names (Yarrly, Yabbly, BucketListly).

What makes these names so irresistible? And what special powers does that little -ly suffix possess?

I'll get to those questions shortly (see what I did there?). But first, a visual aid:

This is a section of a Pinterest board I started in 2013 to track company and product names that end in -ly (and also -li — as in Noisli, Describli, or Bubbli — which is pronounced identically and usually plays the same grammatical role in the names). To date, I've pinned more than 250 names — five new examples just since the beginning of 2015.

One thing to be deduced from this catalogue is that these -ly names, like other English words that end in -ly, are meant to be modifiers: they describe things. (Many companies gravitate toward descriptive names, either from poverty of imagination or timidity, but it's a weak strategy from legal and brand perspectives. For more on this tangent, see my blog post on the five types of names.) Some of these descriptive names function as adjectives; others are — or are trying to be — adverbs.

Take Writerly, for example (we'll ignore, for now, the dot before the -ly). It's a "real" word, found in standard dictionaries, albeit only since 1957, when it was used in the Times Literary Supplement; it's defined as "of, relating to, characteristic of, or befitting a writer." Writerly modifies nouns (the writerly virtues, a writerly craft) and is formed from a noun — but not just any type of noun, as we'll see — plus the -ly suffix. Quarterly, Timely, and even coined names like Soccerly and Leafly follow this pattern.

The company names Strikingly and Frankly are also dictionary words, but they follow the pattern of adverbs: they have adjectives rather than nouns as their primary word part, and they can modify verbs or adjectives (a frankly refreshing viewpoint; a strikingly persuasive argument). The company name Fastly was created this way, even though it's redundant: fast is both an adjective ("a fast car") and an adverb ("Don't drive too fast!").

Our language has had this dual "-ly" distinction all the way back to Old English. In Making New Words, the linguist R.M.W. Dixon explains that Old English "formed an adjective by adding suffix -lic to a noun, and then formed an adverb from this by adding a further suffix -e after the -lic." Thus earth (to spell it the modern way) produced the adjective earth-lic, which was turned into earth-lic-e (earthly-ly, "in an earthly manner"). If you see a similarity between OE -lic and the modern suffix -like — as in warlike, ladylike, and dreamlike — you're on the money: they have the same root.

By Middle English — roughly the 12th century C.E. — the two suffixes had merged, Dixon writes, although there were late holdouts: "Until the seventeenth century, adverb-forming -ly could be added after adjective-forming -ly, as in kind-li-ly and god-li-ly." Modern English dropped that construction, so instead of saying cowardly-ly we now say something like "in a cowardly manner." We also don't add -ly to nouns that end in the phonemes /i/ or /l/: it's bell-like, not bell-ly. That latter rule gets thrown out the window when we're talking about adverbs formed by adding -ly: lovably from lovable, easily from easy, and even the tongue-twisting versatilely are perfectly acceptable adverbs.

Only certain classes of nouns get to become adjectives by adding -ly, and Dixon presents a helpful chart to keep them straight. Body parts and related states, such as nose, fever, and bone, may form adjectives by adding -like, -ish, -y, and several other suffixes — but never -ly. Descriptions of types and groups of people, by contrast, happily bond with -ly: manly, scholarly, ghostly, kingly — but never with -able or -y. There are 20 "semantic types" of nouns in all, and each class has its own adjective-formation rules.

To further confuse matters — at least for English learners — a handful of -ly adjectives are formed from other adjectives: lonely, sickly, goodly, and deadly are among the most familiar. In each case, the suffix creates a new meaning: a lone gunman is not quite the same as a lonely gunman.

Some categories of words never, in normal English grammar, take the -ly suffix. Verbs are the most prominent example. But despite or perhaps in defiance of this proscription, many new businesses deliberately have chosen to create names by adding -ly to verbs: the roster includes Findly, Seekly, Sendly (not to be confused with Sently), Referly, Knowly, Embedly, Respondly, Optimizely, and Recurly. (Recurly has nothing to do with hair; it's a service for recurring payments.) Sometimes it's hard to know which part of speech is being -ly-ified: Founderly is a site for company founders, but you could just as easily read founder as the verb meaning "to sink" or "to fail."

Even odder are the -ly names formed from neologisms (BucketListly, a way to keep track of your "bucket list" — things to do before you "kick the bucket," i.e., die), portmanteaus (Volcally, from "volunteer locally"), and coined words with no evident meaning (Scubbly, an online marketplace; Rosingly, a daily-deal site; Vimbly, an activity finder). One such name was created — well, winkingly: is a crowdsourced style and usage guide whose name is a nod to a notorious "non-word"; the site's founder, Charles Best — who also founded the philanthropic site Donors Choose — told me that when he couldn't buy "despite repeated attempts," he chose the .ly extension, "consoling ourselves that we at least had an even funkier construction in ‘irregardlessly'."

Ah, yes — the .ly domain extension: responsible, in ways direct and indirect, for the explosion of -ly business names.  

Dot-ly is the country code for Libya, which administers the domain through a state-owned telecommunications monopoly. For $75 a year, anyone anywhere may register a .ly domain as long as it does not contain "obscene and indecent names/phrases" or "words/phrases or abbreviations insulting religion or politics" or "related to gambling and lottery industry" or "be contrary to Libyan law or Islamic morality." That leaves a sizable swath of the Internet, but it took a while — and a shrinking pool of .com names — for businesses to pay attention. Among the first to do so were the link shorteners and, both introduced in 2008. As link-shortening caught on for various reasons — character-count restrictions on Twitter, to take one notable example — the .ly domain gained exposure and popularity.

And then the snowball effect took over. Naming trends have their own momentum, as we've seen in earlier eras: from the simplified-spelling names of the 1920s (Holsum Bread, Klever Klippers) to the Q names of the 2000s. When I started tracking the -ly trend, in August 2011, I considered 27 examples to be 26 too many. Now that we're at nearly 10 times that number, I'm throwing in the towel. If companies prefer to follow the herd, sacrificing distinctiveness for sameness, so be it. I take comfort in knowing that eventually, inevitably, finally — thankfully — the herd will shift direction.

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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.