Naming In The News

THE WORD – Tongue-twisting technology

By Jan Freeman | November 12, 2006

AS THE CAMPAIGN SEASON'S bluster swelled toward its crashing climax, the noise seemed sufficient to drown out all other language annoyances. Not quite, though: One colleague tuned out the electioneering long enough to register an objection to the latest trendy cellphone name, Casio's G'zOne.

"Is that 'gee zone' or 'gazone'?" he asked. (Or "geez one" or "guzoney," he might have added.) "In our obsession with newfangled orthography, have we reached the point where we're leaving consumers in the dark about pronunciation?"

Yes, Wii are. (That's Wii as in Nintendo's new game console — pronounced "we," says the company, though "W-two" and "wee" and "why" seem just as plausible.)

These complaints are not just an arthritic knee-jerk rebuff to novelty. Product names like Orlon and Ipana and Weebles have been around for decades, paving the way for Accenture and Prozac and Zune, Microsoft's latest "media player." Kix and Brylcreem, once upon a time, must have looked as orthographically adventurous as Razr and Flickr do now.

But none of these coinages, whatever their quirks, are hard to pronounce. Even Wii, though it looks like the abbreviation for a minor war, is only slightly mysterious.

G'zOne, on the other hand, is cleverly designed for maximum bafflement, like an impossible Escher stairway. Are the syllables "G'z" (add your own vowel) and "One," as the capital O suggests? Or is it "G" plus a capriciously capitalized "zOne"? Or hard-G "Guh-ZONE (Y)," to rhyme with phone (or phony)?

The Globe once had a column whose logo — "SporTView" — twisted the synapses in just the same way. You could read "sport view," and you could see the "TV" in the middle, but no pronunciation could incorporate both. Sporty-view? Spor-T-V-you?

And Verizon's latest spinoff, Idearc, continues the tradition. Blend "idea" and "arc," the proud parents say, and you get "EYE-dee-ark." Good EYE-dee-a? Maybe not. "When I first saw the name and logo scheme, I thought I was seeing a word pronounced 'EYE-deerk,"' wrote William Lozito last month at namedevelopment.com, a lively branding blog hosted by the Minneapolis company Strategic Name Development.

You might think written English was challenging enough without this sort of monkey business. We've got all those variant pronunciations of the same letters -- see tough/through, tomb/bomb/comb, beard/heard. (If you enjoy poems on this theme, England's Simplified Spelling Society has a collection of them: spellingsociety.org.)

We've got words with silent letters, like boatswain and victuals, and foreign words like vichyssoise and bruschetta, and proper names from around the globe. Even if we never saw another weird brand name, we'd have plenty of pronunciation puzzles to solve.

But the creative minds behind G'zOne are selling cool, not comfort, and selling it to an oral culture, at that; if word of mouth does its job, the target audience will know how to pronounce the product name within weeks, and the weird spelling will be irrelevant. Already, as far as the Web is concerned, G'zOne is no different from the British record label G Zone and the gospel music website G Zone.

And it's easy to overreact to a new coinage. Just six years ago, some people worried that Verizon was too offbeat; stories announcing the new name of the Bell Atlantic-GTE combo carefully instructed readers that it was "vur-EYE-zun," not "VER-y-zone." Among its caffeinated target consumers, the G'zOne might rocket from unreadable to unremarkable to obsolete while we print-bound traditionalists are still scratching our heads over that apostrophe.

Still, you can't always count on consumers to take your word for it, as Ford recently learned. The company's brief attempt to trendify Lincoln, with 2007 model names like MKZ — to be pronounced "Mark Z" — was an instant flop; the cars are now just "em-kay-zee" and so on.

More important, there may be a price for overindulging in creativity. A Princeton study that looked at the track record of newly public companies found "a direct link between an IPO's initial success and how easily its company name, and ticker symbol, rolls off the tongue," wrote Lozito at namedevelopment.com.

The researchers asked subjects to rank company names by ease of pronunciation, then checked the performance of the companies' stocks. And pronunciation, they found, was correlated with payoff: "If a person had invested $1,000 in the ten easiest to remember names (ones that sound like GOOG, as in Google), she or he would have made $333 more than [by investing it in] the ten hardest (names like VYYO, as in Vyyo Inc.)."

So if appeals to logic and literacy don't dampen companies' orthographic adventurism, maybe the profit motive will do the job. Meanwhile, say hello to the G'zOne, but skip the "zone": According to Casio, the name is simply "gee-zee-one."

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman/

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