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August 17, 2006

Brand Naming: Alternative Spellings Aren't New

FlickrThe marketplace, and particularly the Internet, are full of alternative spellings of ordinary words: Flickr, Google (the original mathematical term is “googol”), RAZR, Seeq, Syndic8.

Even before text messaging inspired the trend of disappearing vowels and numbers substituted for syllables, we had “Citibank” instead of “City Bank” and “Publix” instead of “Publics” - not to mention “Rite Aid” and “Toys ‘R’ Us.”

PublixNone of these names would win a prize in a spelling bee, but that doesn’t mean the companies that chose them can’t spell, or don’t think their customers can spell. Most would be much less effective if consumers didn’t recognize the alternate, “incorrect” spellings.

Indeed, without standardized spelling as laid out in dictionaries, there would have been no motivation to use the alternative spellings - and no chance to trademark them.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, English spelling had not been codified. Not only were “u” and “v,” “i” and “j” interchangeable, but Shakespeare’s own name has been spelled several different ways - even, it appears, . While the most common spelling was the one we use today, there were many variants, including “Shake-speare,” “Shakespere,” “Shakspear,” “Shaxpere,” and even “Shagspere,” which is rather rude by modern British standards.

Rite AidThe Elizabethan era lacked trademark offices as well as dictionaries, but the USPTO is as aware as Shakespeare’s contemporaries that alternative spellings still refer to the same thing, and wouldn’t look kindly on anyone who attempted to file “Publics” for a grocery store or “Right Aid” for a drugstore.

Nevertheless, the alternative spelling helps distinguish the company or product and to get around restrictions on “merely descriptive” names and trademarking words in general usage. And unlike Shakespeare, Flickr, Publix, and Rite Aid can enforce their choice of how their names are spelled.

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Posted by Diane Prange at August 17, 2006 7:27 AM
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Tracked on November 18, 2006 2:34 AM


I've been looking through old volumes of the journal "Dialect Notes" from the early 1920's, specifically articles about spelling variations in advertising written by Dr. Louise Pound. In her paper "Spelling-Manipulation and Present Day Advertising" (1923) she makes note that "manipulated spelling", as she calls it, has been around for some time, but had really taken off in the few years preceding the published article.

In the paper, she also calls it "re-spellings" or "spelling-perversions", but there doesn't seem to be a single term at that time for this orthographic effect in advertising.

One potential cause for the introduction of the technique in advertising she attributes to the influence of the spelling reform movement (aka Simplified Spelling) which was dying in popularity around this time.

The movement has a fascinating history in itself. The main justifications for the movement were twofold. One, it was believed that a simplified orthography would help children learn to read and write much quicker as they wouldn't be confronted with the crazy exceptions in the English language. And two, it would greatly reduce printing costs as there would be fewer type to set as the words would be shorter. Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin were early supporters of spelling reform, and the movement reached it's zenith in 1906. Andrew Carnegie had donated $280,000 towards the cause, the National Education Association had adopted a revised list of 300 simplified words to slowly integrate into the education system and president Roosevelt felt so strongly about the system that he issued an order in Sept 1906 that the government printing office (then the largest printer in the world) start to use the system in all its publications. This last measure was too extreme for Congress which put pressue on Roosevelt to overturn the decision which he eventually did in Dec 1906. It was all downhill from there for any institutionalized form of spelling reform.

Under a simplified spelling scheme, words like "kissed" would become "kist", "surprise" would become "surprize" with a Z, "night" would be "nite" etc... These alternate spellings were being published all over the place in the early 1900's and advertisers were taking full advantage of these unique and memorable new orthographic forms. "Soft Sole Kosy Toes slippers", "Locktite Tobacco Pouch", "Electric Auto-Lite Company", "Nu-tone tonic", "Holsum Bread", "Az-Nu enameling hoods", "Klenzo tooth paste".... the list is endless.

Dr. Pound has writen numerous articles on word-coinage most of which were published in early Dialect Notes volumes. I encourage everyone interested in this topic to have a look at them. One of them entitlted "The Kraze for K" is my favorite...


What a great comment.

I have to check out Dr. Pound's work.

Thanks again for the informative comment David.

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