Linguistics: July 2006 Archives

Links Du Jour 07-28-06

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  • Norman's World - Tom Peters shares that a recent L.L.Bean order of his was N.I.S. (not in store.) What's interesting is that Leon Leonwood Bean (L.L.Bean) has turned over the reins to his nephew, whose name happens to be Norman Ignatius Stephen Bean (N.I.S. Bean). I don't think Norman has any plans on changing the company name.
  • Concatenation of letter strings can get you into trouble - Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log reports on an interesting story regarding the embarassing intersection of linguistics, company naming, and domain names. Italian battery company Powergen Italia's website URL is Yes, they have since changed their company name. Pen Island is a company selling customized pens, and really does have a current web site called
  • Pretentious names for trim - Jack Yan talks about those tricky car names and levels denoted by letters such as L, GL, and S, or a combination, like the Camaro Z-28. These letters or words following the brand name denote how well equipped a car was. Now, Jack says, auto makers are denoting extra levels of quality with created names such as Focus Platinum, Ford Zetec, Renault Scénic, or Commodore Omega. Do you think pretentious names inform the consumer?

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Brand Naming: Watch Out For Paws and Pause

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Homophones are words which have the same sound but different spellings, such as “paws” and “pause.” English has a phenomenal number of these, though none of them start with X or Z, at least according to Suber & Thorpe’s online .

Homophones are one of the primary sources of puns. If your company’s name has a homophone, it increases the ease with which people can make jokes about it. Some companies deliberately call on the humor of homophones in naming their businesses, like the eyeglass merchant Site for Sore Eyes or a local alterations shop called Sew What.

As I mentioned in my post last week; ; the name of the fictitious company S.O.R.E. was an attempt to invoke the connotations of “soar.” Even if the students had named their project “Soar,” however, the fact that the name sounded like “sore” would have been a drawback. Nintendo’s “Wii” has as a homophone not only of “we” but of “wee.”

SyscoIn addition to the potential for ridicule, homophones leave consumers open to confusion and could hamper brand recognition. A 2000 reported that only 20% of respondents surveyed by Doremus recognized as a food products distributor, whereas 60% appeared to mistake it for tech giant .

CiscoOne suspects most American consumers would mis-identify the shipping company as the discount retailer . Even though none of the four companies has a natural word for a name, they are still homophones.

CoscoHaving your brand mistaken for someone else’s is never good. The point of filing a trademark is to protect your company from this kind of consumer confusion. The USPTO’s trademark search function is actually pretty good at uncovering homophones for search terms, but it’s perfectly legitimate for two companies in different industries to have names which sound alike.

CostcoIt’s just not good for brand recognition. To avoid confusion when naming your own company or product, stay away from homophones unless you’re making a deliberate play on words.

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ZuneThe Inquirer, a UK business publication that’s part of VNU Business Media, which also publishes Adweek in the U.S., is reporting that Microsoft’s “iPod killer”, Zune, may be to describe parts of the male anatomy. The French-Canadian slang might actually be spelled “Zoune”.

Is Microsoft running the risk of stubbing their toe in Canada much like Buick did when they introduced the LaCrosse in Canada? , as it turns out, is French-Canadian slang for “masturbation”. Buick quickly changed the name to Buick Allure.

Our linguists are currently analyzing the French-Canadian slang and I will report on their opinion later today.

Stay tuned...or should I say stay zuned?

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Lee Gomes, of the Wall Street Journal, today published a on domain names.

The source of his information is Dennis Forbes, an analyst with Vastardis Capital Services, a New York mutual-fund service company.

Although, being a naming company, anecdotally, we are aware of many of these findings. But not to the degree and thoroughness that are reported in the Journal article.

Hats off to Dennis for analyzing this information and Lee reporting on it:

  • There are roughly 47 million domain names that end with ".com".
  • For every possible 2-character and 3-character combination, including both letters and numbers, all possible domains are taken.
  • The most common word, four letters or longer, is "home" - 719,000 domains have some sort of home in them.
  • "Sex" appears in 257,000 domains; "Imagine" appears in 3,700.
  • The average length of a domain name is 13 characters long - half are between 9 and 15.
  • A domain can have, at most, 63 characters, and there are 550 such domains.
  • Each of the 26 letters of the alphabet have a domain in which the letter is repeated 63 times.
  • Most people now search for Web sites using a descriptive word or phrase...

We especially understand that last point. We recognized, years ago, that potential clients were searching by a descriptive word or phrase. That's why we chose for our domain name.

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Brand Naming: Students Know Technology Not Branding

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Every year the collects some 1200 high school students in San Jose for an intensive series of site visits, seminars, workshops, labs, and presentations by representatives from major technology companies and universities.

And every year the students are divided into teams to work on Future Solutions projects to solve real-world dilemmas “through the creative use of existing or future technology.” Yesterday, judges from the likes of Microsoft, Google, and HP convened to award prizes in categories such as “Best Business Solution,” “Greatest Global Impact,” and “Best Expansion of Existing Technology,” with one overall winner out of the eleven category winners.

All of the projects were good, but some had better names than others. “Sewergy” and “LugEx” show a better grasp of the importance of branding in today's marketplace than “Implementation of Nanosensors in Regards to Insulin Control.”

The two top contenders for overall winner were both renewable energy solutions. Runner-up TerMight used termites and yard waste to create high-grade ethanol to fuel cars, while the winning project harvested wind power by putting turbines on floating frames tethered to oil derricks.

The name of this project? S.O.R.E.

That stands for Solutions of Renewable Energy, and with the gull-like logo the students drew, it was clear they wanted people to think of the homophone for their acronym: “soar.”

Unfortunately, if the judges are anything to go by, that wasn’t what came to mind. There were numerous “don’t get sore if we don’t vote for your project” remarks from the judges on other teams when it came time to choose the overall winner. If S.O.R.E. had been a real company, its name would have been a serious liability.

They would have done better just to call the project “Soar,” making up a new acronym if they felt they had to. (Acronyms are not the best choice for names, but are pretty common for non-profit and research institutions: think of SETI, or of NYLF for that matter.)

Fortunately for Team S.O.R.E., the project’s name was not one of the criteria the judges used to determine the best project.

These students understood the technology of what they submitted, but like many companies, they overlooked the importance of an appropriate brand name.

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Product Naming: Stop Morphing My Phonemes!

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I find one of the challenges in using foreign words to create new product names is the way sounds shift shape across languages.

Linguists call a unit of sound a “phoneme,” from the Greek word phone, meaning “voice.” And right there we have a demonstration of the problem. English “phone” is a one-syllable word, but Greek phone is two syllables, since the “e” at the end rhymes with “way.”

English has one letter, “e,” to represent the two Greek “e”s: Epsilon (the short e, pronounced like the “e” in English “bed”) and Eta, which is pronounced like a long English “a”. Not only that, but English uses “e” to represent at least two other sounds as well: the “uh” of “the” and the long “e” of “Steve.” And then there’s the silent “e,” at the end of “Steve,” which isn’t pronounced at all.

All of which means that English speakers might not be sure how to pronounce a new name with an “e” in it, unless the “e” is part of a word or name they already know.

I feel if people can’t pronounce a brand name, they’re not going to talk about it - and those who hear them might not realize which product they mean if they do. Look at the problem Nike (another Eta word, this time the name of the Greek goddess of victory) had convincing the American public that its brand name didn’t rhyme with “bike.”

This problem with the changing shape of sounds rules out a lot of otherwise good name candidates, at least for English names. Languages like Italian, Spanish, and German are much more a case of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to pronunciation and spelling.

But English, precisely because it has roots in so many languages and uses so many imported words, has many ways to represent every sound and many sounds for every combination of letters (called a “morpheme,” from the Greek word for shape).

The moral of the story? Watch out for Etas when naming.

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GoogleDominating the market for a product or service has its down side.

Once people associate your brand name with a particular function, they start using it to describe any product of that type. “Thermos” is the classic example: Merriam-Webster defines “", with a lower-case “t,” as “a container (as a bottle or jar) with a vacuum between an inner and outer wall used to keep material and especially liquids either hot or cold for considerable periods,” relegating the trademark “Thermos” to the etymology section.

Now it’s officially happened to Google. Ever since Google became the predominant search engine, people have been using the verb “to google” to mean “look up in Google.” We've said it before that about the genericization of its name. Now “google,” again with a lower-case G (because English doesn’t capitalize verbs any more than it does generic nouns), has also .

Why is this a problem? Just as “thermos” now applies to insulated flasks made by any manufacturer, “google” could easily mean “look up in any search engine.”

Within the high-tech community, the verb “google” is often shortened to “goo.” The abbreviation leaves the trademark protected, but has much less flattering connotations. I might prefer having my brand eroded a bit, myself.

Just about everyone knows that Kleenex, Band-aid, and Xerox were once brand names.

Lesser-known are the following names that were once trademarked and have now become genericized:

  • Bikini
  • Granola
  • Linoleum
  • Margarine
  • Yo-yo
  • Zeppelin
  • Zipper

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Ares Spacecraft Has a Martial Name

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NASA logoNaming, be it product naming, or creating a brand name, or company naming for that matter, can have unintended consequences. That appears to be the case with ’s spacecraft naming.

NASA insists, however, that in naming its new exploratory spacecraft the I and II, it had no desire to invoke the concept of war and destruction. They found that is the Greek equivalent of and decided it was a fitting name for spacecraft the final destination of which is the fourth planet.

Did the researchers at NASA forget, then, that Mars was the Roman god of war, and that its red color was reminiscent of blood to those who first named it? I think they may have.

AresAdmittedly the Roman god Mars was a far more respectable deity than Greek Ares, but then again, the Romans were justly proud of their military might. They created a successful and generally well-run empire, while Greek wars tended to be internecine and leave everyone involved unequivocally worse off.

Because most of us in the modern world are introduced to Mars as the proper name of a planet before we learn any mythology, we don’t automatically associate the name with aggression. And it may be that the general public doesn’t associate much with the name Ares, except perhaps to confuse it with the astrological sign Aries.

But I think checking with a few classicists about a proposed name isn’t rocket science. I think it’s disingenuous of NASA to claim ignorance about the connotations of “Ares.”

Rockets can be and have been named after planets before (think of the series), so this isn’t like the Nyx/Nix case I recently blogged about. If they wanted a peaceful name for a Moon-Mars rocket, they could have chosen , the Greek lunar deity. They didn’t.

And, I for one don't find it reassuring.

Note also that NASA is confusing matters with another pair of projects called ARES: a proposed Mars mission, dubbed Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey of Mars, and an office called Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science.

For other perspectives on the Ares name, see what other bloggers are saying:

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