Welcome, New York Times Readers!

I was lucky enough to be included in an article in The New York Times Magazine about professional namers. As a kid, I read William Safire’s “On Language” column every Sunday in The Times magazine section. For me, this is as humbling as it is huge.

For those of you new to Operative Words (which is the name of my naming agency and my blog), here is where I give away expertise. I do this because I want everyone to be a great namer or great judge of names. And I do that because I'd rather be surrounded by wonderful words and not ugly ones. I think most people feel that way.

These are some posts to get you started:

Instinct as enemy: How to sell-in the new and unfamiliar
An equal and opposite reaction: How to manage emotions and subjectivity in a naming program
Creative names the easy way
Where are the most creative names?
Describe different
Red Flags and Red Herrings: How to check brand names in foreign languages
Decisions, decisions: How to research brand names

Here, you’ll find case histories (I call them “name stories”), and creative naming tools. I embed how-to tips in my name stories, so expect some overlap.

My Twitter feed is updated far more regularly than this blog, so be sure to .

Please join my email list for updates. I’ve sent out, like, three updates in five years, so it might be a while before you hear from me. Be patient.

This is my contact for a project or pull quote.

I owe all of my clients so much gratitude. In particular, I want to thank the founders of Jaunt VR, Jens Christensen, Arthur van Hoff and Tom Annau for letting me talk with The Times about naming their company. I also want to profusely thank branding agency Character, particularly Ollie Ralph and Ben Pham, who invited me to collaborate on the Jaunt project. If you’re creating a breakthrough product, Character will serve you well for brand strategy and identity.

Thank you to fellow namer, Margaret Wolfson, founder of River+Wolf for recommending me to the author of The Times article. And I’d like to thank him, biographer Neal Gabler, for listening to me ramble on for four hours about my obsession with naming.

I’d also like to thank the Academy. 

– Anth

Fifty Futures

It’s my job to imagine different tomorrows.

As a professional namer, I strive to explore every perspective on my clients’ new brands. Each one is articulated as a name, representing a potential brand future. After spending weeks creating names and then filtering them through trademark screening, I present a shortlist to my client. Many possibilities, all potential, but which one will become reality?

Like Schrodinger’s cat, who, while boxed up is dead and alive at the same time, these names are futures coexisting under the cloaked secrecy of a client presentation. Once the curtain is lifted and the final, approved name is launched worldwide, those possible futures, the ones that might have been, evaporate (my clients get to own one name I have developed, and the rest go back into my quiver). All that remains of the runners-up is a memory, lingering among the select group in attendance at the original presentation, and they are all sworn to secrecy.

But this once, my client and I have agreed to share with you a few of the futures which a list of names represents. Although the final chosen name for this assignment is a particular favorite in my portfolio, the runners-up reveal a lot about how a namer thinks, and how the process of naming works.

The Project

In the spring of 2012, I was approached to name a start-up. My client was creating a line of ready-to-drink cocktails, made with select, natural ingredients, organic when possible. The drinks would be lightly carbonated, delicious and, being made simply, would be low in calories. These cocktails, starting with a margarita, would give competitors like Skinny Girl a run for their money.

My client didn’t have much capital to invest initially, so I agreed to be compensated, in part, with a thin sliver of their revenue for a few years. If they didn’t succeed, at least I could experience the sheer fun of naming a new line of cocktails.

The recipes were created by three women who called their stealth, startup venture Moms on the Rocks, a witty name befitting their bubbly personalities. With a placeholder that good, I knew this client would be a great partner in naming.

Names are a mirror. They reflect products and the people who create them. After all, it’s the founders who ultimately set the direction for naming, narrow the shortlist of potential candidates and anoint the finalist. You can learn a lot about the founders of a company just by looking at their placeholder name. 

Fun, confident, outgoing, opinionated, unvarnished. In my briefing with the founders, these emerged as the traits that best described them and the personality of their new brand. Each of these qualities was a starting point, and from there, I searched for related words, branching out in ever widening circles. Exploring outward in every direction from these core ideas traces a sphere in words. These words form a world, and every point on and inside that world is a possible future.

For this project, I explored several concepts, included fresh, natural, green, fruit, squeeze, mixing, farm, agriculture, organic, and pure. I also looked at idioms and phrasal verbs to see what might pop up. 

After two weeks of exploration, I cherry-picked the best names and screened them for trademark availability. How? That’s a topic for another post. 

So what are the futures, the names, that might have been for this line of cocktails? Here are a handful:

Happy Place –Where does a great drink take you? For some, it’s here. The name Happy Place would tell the clients’ story about their Marin County home, the orchards where fresh limes are picked, and the Mexican fields where the blue agave grows. If this were the name, the brand would be about places that make people happy. The client could sponsor a YouTube channel where people tell their stories about places that are dear to them and make them smile. 

True Nature – The cocktail’s natural ingredients were fertile territory for name exploration. This one would emphasize the cocktail’s use of real fruit juices. True Nature would be an honest brand, a straight shooter. But it’s not terribly fun, while my clients and their brand certainly are. It's a good name, but for a different product.

Green Party – Natural doesn’t have to be serious. With a name like Green Party, this brand could be about having a great time naturally. Sure, the name skews political, but what if it were paired with a picture of dancing limes? With the right imagery, this would move the name away from Ralph Nader and towards skinny dipping and icy glasses of margaritas. Party on!

Picnic – You can feel the sunshine in this name. It’s warm, fresh and innocent. There’s a light buoyancy. The name is all about being social, with friends and family. A margarita called Picnic would be full of fresh fruit. The label might sport red gingham. It would be simple and honest. It would be good and clean and fun. Picnic illustrates how a surprising name can also be a real and common English word and not some crazy coinage. 

Squoze – A playful way of suggesting fresh-squeezed. Squoze would be a brand about living life with a twist,  and sometimes being a bit twisted. Familiar objects and experiences would be featured, but they’d be a bit off, in a safe and playful way: 
We hug our limes until the juice comes out. That’s Squoze. 
Be the lime of the party. Bring Squoze. 
Something to that effect.

Laughing Glass – This is not a name that might have been. This is the name. Because it articulates the sheer delight the client sought for their brand foundation, Laughing Glass was adopted as the go-to-market moniker. When a name instantly has the whole room beaming, as this one did for the client, it stands a great chance of success in the meeting and the marketplace. The name inspired the brand philosophy, Laughing My Glass Off and reflects what the client really believes in: Joy.

Snappy packaging by Voicebox Creative

The founders, in high spirits in The San Francisco Chronicle 

Laughing Glass is the reality that we see today on shelves in Whole Foods and elsewhere throughout California. But it didn’t have to be that way. It could have been one of the other names I presented to the client that day. Each one would have emphasized different aspects of their identity, and raised different expectations in their audiences.

I’m very grateful to Laughing Glass for such an exciting collaboration, and for letting me share this peek behind the curtain.

Thanks to my go-to copywriter Daniel Meyerowitz for valuable edits and contributions. 

Jaunt: The Story Behind the Name

“You’re going to need to sit down.” 

That was the understatement of the day.

Taking a seat in my client’s office, cluttered with computers, video equipment and prototypes, I strapped on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

I was now looking at the same office, but in the monitor of the VR headset the room was neater. My three clients had shifted positions. As I turned my head, I could see them seated around the room; in front, to the side and behind me. They started throwing a Nerf ball to each other and my head turned to follow the ball. 

I could swear that the ball was being tossed around me. But it wasn’t. It was a 3D video recording that so closely mirrored reality, I could only react by gasping and giggling. 

It was a real “Mr. Watson, come here” moment. I was bearing witness to a new and profound invention: Cinematic VR. And I was honored with the task of naming it.

The Briefing

The opportunity came to me through Character, an outstanding branding and design agency whose work I admired. We had worked sequentially on the same projects but hadn’t yet collaborated. Character designed packaging for products I named, like the Plantronics Rig gaming headset, and they designed the identity for Zact Mobile, which I also named.

Character’s work designing the Android identity system for Andy Rubin, the mobile computing pioneer, had led to other interesting projects, such as this mind-blowing VR startup.

Character and I rendezvoused at Redpoint Ventures where our clients were “entrepreneurs in residence.” This unassuming office building belied the fact that within it, the future of entertainment was being invented. 

Three clients briefed us: Jens Christensen, Arthur van Hoff and Tom Annau. Their words flew around the room: immersivetransportingtranscendentvirtual presencemimics reality, a whole new mediumscience fiction, Jedi training ball. When Jedi training ball is used to reference a new technology, it’s going to be a big deal.

Left to right: Tom, Arthur, Jens
Meet the clients.
After the briefing, they whisked us to the office next door for the demo. It was weird, this nondescript, plain-vanilla space was strewn with crazy, never-before-seen inventions-in-progress. There was the 3D-printed sphere covered with lenses, the dev kits of the Oculus Rift, and assorted networking, videography and optics widgets strewn about.

Meet the camera.
To establish a baseline experience in virtual reality, I was handed an Oculus Rift headset loaded with an off-the-shelf demo called Tuscany. I put it on and saw a computer rendering of a well-manicured Tuscan estate. I rotated my head to look around. Using a trackball, I wandered the property. Wearing special VR gloves, I could grab or throw objects. It was pretty cool.

Tuscany: Cool. But not cool enough.
Despite being cutting-edge, the Tuscany demo was quickly eclipsed by the technology my clients’ were creating, which was nothing short of astounding. Their high-definition video feed in the headset was completely convincing. I really felt like I was watching something happening live all around me. In the Tuscany demo, I was aways aware it was CG. 

Ask your doctor if Jaunt is right for you.
The Strategic Framework

Being there. That was the promise of this new technology. Concerts, sports, family reunions, Presidential press briefings, sightseeing. All these things could someday be experienced remotely yet immersively. I’ll admit running a little hyperbolic, but I’m telling you: Cinematic VR will change everything. This technology represents a paradigm shift in entertainment and communications as significant as the radio or television. 

I reviewed the notes from the meeting and synthesized them into name objectives. Name objectives should be MECE: Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. It’s tempting to etch every detail about a product or company into objectives, but it’s better to leave details out that might distract or take creative down an unproductive or short-sighted path.

Here are the name objectives for the cinematic VR project:  
The new name should support or connote a brand that:
  • delivers unprecedented experiences presented in an entirely new medium
  • provides immersive, virtual experiences that are completely realistic
  • is capable of representing an entirely new category of experience
  • transports people to another place 
  • is not limited to a visual experience
The new name will refer to an experience, hardware, software, a website and app, among other things. 
The new name should have the ability to be appended as a modifier, as in ESPN 3D, The Avengers Blue-ray or Pacific Rim IMAX. 
The name should be relatively short and easy to spell. 
The trademark and domain should be available or acquirable.
  • The domain might include a modification of the name, or be something other than .com (though not .net or .org).
The Names My Destination

Upon approval of the objectives I started naming, plundering the worlds of immersion, travel, space, entertainment and verbs. I scoured science fiction – teleportation in particular – and found The Glossary of Science Fiction Ideas, Technology and Inventions, an alphabetic inventory of over 2400 glorious gadgets, gizmos and doodads. It is the go-to resource for studying futuristic, albeit fictional, advances in science. 

It was there, filed under J, that I found the entry for Jaunte Stage – a little space to teleport. Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel, The Stars my Destination, introduces jaunte to mean teleport. A Jaunte Stage is a platform for teleportation. 

Jaunting, in the novel, was not named after the word jaunt, but after a character, Charles Fort Jaunte, who discovered the ability to self-transport by mind power alone. Jaunting was not a technology, but a psionic capability.
Any man was capable of jaunting provided he developed two faculties, visualization and concentration. He had to visualize, completely and precisely, the spot to which he desired to teleport himself; and he had to concentrate the latent energy of his mind into a single thrust to get him there. 
–Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
Decades later, Stephen King wrote a short story about teleportation called The Jaunt. He got the name from the same place I did. Quoth The Jaunt:
“Of course you know that the Jaunt is teleportation, no more or less,” he said. “Sometimes in college chemistry class and physics they call it the Carune Process, but it’s really teleportation, and it was Carune himself — if you can believe the stories — who named it ‘The Jaunt.’ He was a science-fiction reader, and there’s a story by a man named Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination it’s called, and this fellow Bester made up the word ‘jaunte’ for teleportation in it. Except in his book you could Jaunt just by thinking about it, and we can’t really do that.” 
– Stephen King, The Jaunt
Bester did not make up the word jaunt, only its use as teleport. We don’t really know where the word jaunt first came from. It might have originated in Old French. We do know that it was originally pejorative and meant “a tiresome journey” (1590s) or “to tire a horse out by riding back and forth on it” (1560s). The current, positive meaning of jaunt to mean “a short pleasure trip” came about in the 1670s. 

Oddly, the word jaunty does not come from jaunt, but from French gentil (meaning gentle, genteel). Despite jaunty meaning “having a lively, cheerful and self-confident manner,” and jaunt meaning a “lively, cheerful excursion,” their resemblance is just a coincidence. 

I created 1200 other names for the assignment and over 200 were screened for preliminary global trademark availability by my long-time trademark partner, Steve Price of Tessera. I worked closely with Character refining the list and over 100 names were presented in two rounds of work. 

Context is King

It’s vital to stage name candidates in a presentation so they have the best chance of acceptance. As a presenter, you must help the audience suspend disbelief that these are not just words on a page. That requires presenting name candidates in a fait-accompli, real-world context. The more a hypothetical name looks like it’s an actual living, breathing brand, the better. (More on that topic here.) 

I chose to present the names in a mocked-up entertainment website. The visual identity development had not yet begun and my client did not have a website, so I started with Ticketmaster’s website then altered it to fit my client’s prospective future. This is what the Jaunt name exhibit looked like for the name presentation: 
The right context makes a hypothetical name seem like a done deal.
Fortunately, Jaunt’s final identity and website is way slicker than my hack. 

The client loved Jaunt. Here’s why:
  • A jaunt is a short trip for pleasure, just as their technology offers a fast and fun escape
  • The name has already been validated – twice! – as a perfect name for teleportation, which is itself the perfect metaphor for cinematic VR
  • It’s short and pairs well with other brands as a technology platform (“See Wimbledon live in Jaunt!”)
Jaunting Ahead 

Following my client’s full legal screening, the name was adopted. Character created Jaunt’s iconic identity:

The name was launched on a snappy website highlighting power-player testimonials:
“Jaunt has created a completely new experience that will change the way we enjoy media.” 
–Brad Wechsler, Chairman of IMAX  
“Jaunt is a total sensory experience unlike anything I've ever seen.The creative community is going to blow our minds with this technology over the coming years.” 
–Peter Gotcher, Chairman of Dolby
I loved how the client incorporated the name into their messaging. From the website:
“The idea for Jaunt originated in early 2013 when one of our founders returned from an amazing experience at Zion National Park.  What if he could go back there for a brief jaunt, at any time, from any place?” 
For further reading on the technology and future of Jaunt, check out these articles:
Meet the Crazy Camera That Can Make Movies for the Oculus Rift 
Virtual reality has another ‘wow’ moment as Jaunt introduces 360-degree cinematic videos 
Jaunt wants to make virtual reality a platform for beautiful, immersive cinema
I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to name Jaunt. Thank you Tom, Arthur, Jens, Ollie, Ben and the rest of the talented team at Character.

- Anth

Naming Colors: My interview in The Boston Globe

Radiant Orchid.

That's the name of Pantone's color of the year. It's a beautiful name befitting the color. I spoke about naming colors with journalist Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe in this interview. Read the story behind the name, Radiant Orchid, the naughty etymology of the word orchid, and the reason why ambiguous color names pop.


Funny Business: The Game for Namers

Namers of the world, rejoice! I bring tidings of great joy, for unto you a game is born. And the name of that game is Funny Business.

Funny Business, “The Hilarious Game of Mismatched Mergers”, challenges players to give names to companies that have merged. The funny part of Funny Business is that the mergers are of incongruous businesses. What name would you give to diner that merged with a hardware store? Or a fruit stand and a cruise line?

What It Is

Four to eight players compete to give the best name for two businesses that have come together. Two “business cards” are drawn for each round of play, each card features a type of business and a list of related words to inspire a name. For example, the business Comic Book Store includes action figure, edition, graphic, superhero, strip, villain, et al. The names each player comes up with can include those words but don’t have to.

Game Play and Voting

Each player anonymously writes down their one best name on a card and the cards are shuffled. A “Boss,” who rotates between plays, reads each name aloud and players secretly vote on their favorite one. The Boss may not vote on their own name, but other players may. After voting, the votes are tallied and points are awarded according to who gets the most votes (2 points), who voted for the winning name (1 point), and the Boss earns double of any points he or she earned in the round. The voting system is ingenious, ensuring that players are not incentivized to vote for their name, but to vote for the best name. Or, at least the name they believe will earn the most votes.

The Verdict

My greatest surprise with Funny Business is not that the game exists (though: hallelujah!), it’s seeing how amazing names are developed by every non-professional-namer I’ve ever played with. The last game I played was swept by my nine-year-old niece.

Funny Business is a fantastically fun game. It’s great for adults and kids – the box suggests age 12 and up, but, in my experience, younger precocious kids can hold their own. And, at less than $8 bucks discounted on Amazon, you really have no choice but to run to your local Amazon (it’s not far!) and grab a copy of Funny Business to play this holiday season.

Have fun!

Five Ways to Create Great, Free Domain Names

Every company needs an Internet presence. With over 111 million (and counting!) .coms already taken, finding a .com that exactly matches your name is not easy.

Sometimes that’s not a big deal. I believe that it’s more important to have a great name than a great domain. For many companies, you can safely modify the perfect name with a descriptor to secure a .com. But if your website is your product, you really do need a clean domain. GoogleSearch.com would not have cut it.

Here are some creative techniques and tools that have enabled me to present scads of great, available domains to my clients. Give them a try the next time you need a clean domain.

Combine Words

This technique relies on creatively combining words that may have never been combined before (if they had been, the .com would probably not be available). Creativity is, at its essence, combining novelly, so this technique is really about good creativity.

Here’s how to do it:

Create two columns of words relevant to the new brand. List functional and descriptive words in one column, and attributes in another. Or relevant nouns in one column and relevant verbs in a second.

Then use a tool like CombineWords.com to combine column A and B in a “brute force” method. This will compel you to consider two-word names that your brain might not put together. Try swapping the first and second columns to double your productive output. Sometimes, with some words, this reversed syntax works better.

Another combinatorial technique relies on mixing adjectives and nouns to create vivid, picturable names. Make a column of colors or sizes and another column of shapes or concrete nouns. Mix and match using Combine Words or another word permutation tool.

You’ll find that some words work better than others. Refine your lists and combine them with other ideas to create longer, better lists of name candidates. This recursive technique will easily net you hundreds of candidates.

Once you have a good list, run it through a batch domain search tool to see what’s free.

These are names I have created that had free and clear .com domains using this technique:


This technique is suitable when your name really does need to match your .com, like for a search engine, video site, photo sharing site, etc.

Don’t Use .com

Back in 2009, I predicted that .coms would be like 800-numbers. That is, companies would begin using non-.com domains and then .com would lose its exclusivity and cachet, much as people got used to seeing 866 and 877 toll-free numbers. That’s happened to some extent.

Top-level domains other than .com have gained some traction. For example, there are scads of names ending in .ly, like bit.ly and live.ly (Nancy Friedman has amassed an impressive collection on her Pinterest board). Some companies have used .net (slideshare.net) and .us (del.icio.us, before they bought delicious.com). ICANN has also blessed the issuance of new domains like .coach and .design. You could create one of your own, but it’ll set you back over $100,000.

My opinion is if the top-level domain name is a natural suffix, like –ly, or separate word, like it or me, you can get away with a non-.com name. For example, visual.ly, flip.it and about.me, but not letsfea.st (hat tip for examples from this article). It does not work so well if the non-.com domain is just hanging out there like a meatball, like secureserver.net. (Non-commercial domains, like .org and .edu, don’t suffer the same restriction because we expect non-profits and educational sites to end with .org and .edu.)

The challenge with creating great names using this non-.com technique is that there are only so many TLDs that exist, and precious few are also English suffixes or words, and fewer still are also available for all to use regardless of where your company is. Here’s my list of viable top-level domains that fit the bill:


This link will take you to registrars for these TLDs, and from there you can search for domain candidates. The world could use a new bulk search engine that will let you search against the TLDs cited above. Geeky entrepreneurs, are you listening?

I have proposed alternatives to .coms to my clients when the .com is unavailable, but they have opted for an available .com based on a name+descriptor.

Light Coining

This technique is the most difficult to get right. Some online names (Flickr and Scribd and Tumblr) found their domain by ditching a vowel. Others by adding a letter (Pinterest). Others by adding a novel suffix (Spotify). Other have substituted one letter for another (Cingular, Embarq).

Here are come light coining techniques, each illustrated by a domain I’ve created:

Technique: add an –r or –er to a verb to create an agent, or try another suffix)

Technique: create a portmanteau, throw in some letter substitution

Technique: letter substitution

Technique: clipping (from exact to xact) and letter substitution (using z for x)

Technique: clipping (from optimism to optism) and letter addition. Poptism.com forwards to Poptism.org since it’s a nonprofit.

Other coining techniques can be found here.
You can find a list of sites dedicated to neologisms here.
My other postings about coined names can be found here.

The following are two techniques you can use when it’s OK for your company name and domain to differ slightly:

Add a Descriptor

OK, let’s say you’ve found the perfect real word that’s available as a trademark for your client. Naturally, the name.com will be taken, since all real, single English words are. Just add a business descriptor, a technique that is suitable for most companies.

Domains I’ve created like this include:


The following names are creative leaps, but they still required appending a descriptor to get the .com:


Make a Call to Action or Tagline

I have never created a domain name that is also a call to action, but it is a viable technique. My naming colleague, Alexandra Watkins, has touted the benefits of domains like EnjoyCoke.com.

For example:

I hope these techniques prove useful for your domain naming projects.

Good luck!

Omphalos: A Word Tasting on Sesquiotic

Some words are worth a thousand pictures. There are people who could stare at a beautiful word all day long and marvel as it reveals more and more imagery and meaning. Staring at words is my hobby.

There is a blog called Sesquiotic, and on this blog James Harbeck publishes “word tastings”. A word tasting is an essay about a word. I’m pretty sure James likes to stare at words as much as I do. Thankfully, he also writes about them:
Words are delicious and intoxicating. They do much more than just denote; they have appearance, sound, a feel in the mouth, and words they sound like and travel with. All of these participate in the aesthetic experience of the word and can affect communication. So why not taste them like a fine wine?
James was nice enough to invite me to contribute to Sesquiotic. This is my word tasting of omphalos and omphaloskepsis, two words I have long stared at: 
Contemplate the navel: The locus of life, button of our underbellies. The place from which every placental mammal was nourished in utero. Students of meditation, enrollees of the navel academy, look within themselves and contemplate their navels to gain an introspective perspective.
Taking shape as innies and outies, the omphalos – ὀμφαλός to the Hellenically-incined – and umbilicus to the medically-inclined – is our most visible (and sexy!) scar: the belly button. Ambient squealing peals are the soundtrack as our umbilical cord is cut, leaving us with a resounding, adorable mark. And despite being a marker of life itself, 90% of navels are depressed. The other 10% are happy outies. 
Is it any wonder navels are centers of attention? They lie at the very center of our bodies – and, some say, the center of the world. The Vitruvian Man pinpoints the center of human geometry at the tummy button, equidistant from the periphery of the great circle formed by da Vinci’s sepia-toned, spread eagle snow angel 
Considering the body further, the Latin word for a place of observation was templum, and so when we contemplate our navels, our bedimpled bodies are a temple, etymologically speaking. 
Among the erudites, navel-gazing is called omphaloskepsis, a mouthful of chewy consonant clusters cooked up by classical Greek phonology.  
Inspecting skeptics might wonder, how is it that this is even a word, this omphaloskepsis? The first syllable is a chomp and an exclamation: oomph! They do not belong together, these zounds, but somehow, like a flounder genetically entwined with a tomato, it kinda works. Other Greek-derived words that begin with this kind of “mph” include amphetamine, amphitheater and emphatic. As far as Greek goes, MPH must stand for More Phonetic Hutzpah.  
The latter and more familiar half of omphaloskepsis, looks like skeptic, one who inquires or doubts. The philosophical school of skeptics was founded by Pyrrho of Ellis who himself was schooled by the gymnosophists, those naked lovers of wisdom native to India. Early followers pursued a special brand of skepticism called Pyrrhonism, though bearing resemblance to Pyrrhus (known for qualified victory), actually shares no common etymon. Only Greek, which has taken so many hubristic liberties with phonology – sphere, pterodactyl, mnemonic, acne, iatric, phthisis, pyknic – binds Pyrrho and Pyrrhic by origin.  
Omphaloskepsis takes us on a long, strange trip through sonority. We set out with our mouths agape, saying “aaah,” as if to afford an attentive physician a better view of our tonsils. Next comes the nasal-fricative [mf] like a one-two punch. It is guttural and visceral and entirely satisfying. We flow into a liquid [l], smooth and fluid, but then are greeted with a skidding, stoccatic fricative-stop-stop-fricative-fricative washboarded stretch of heavy, beclustered syllables. 
Omphalos and omphaloskepsis offer what any great vacation should offer: Something exotic, adventurous, and an opportunity, in looking outside of ourselves, to learn more about what lies within.
If you’ve read this far, it’s clear you, too, like to stare at words. I recommend signing up for the Sesquiotic word tasting email list, where you will be served up a fresh, tasty morsel about a word on an almost-daily basis. Mangia!

Secrets of a Brand Namer: An Interview

Lewis PR interviewed me for their e-magazine, Kupambana. They asked me about how to arrive at a great name (hint: not group brainstorming), stories behind names like Accenture, Lytro and Pattern Energy, and naming myths and misperceptions.

The e-magazine was originally published as free, iPad app which offers a great way to flip through the articles. I've pasted it below if you’re ready to read my interview right now. Click the bottom half of the first page for best results.


The Names of MIT Media Lab: How to Describe an Innovation

There is nothing else quite like MIT Media Lab. Their mission to “invent a better future” has given us a better present. It’s Media Lab’s research and development that led to the Kindle and Nook, Rock Band and One Laptop Per Child.

While their innovative projects receive and deserve recognition, MIT Media Lab’s innovative project naming also warrants study and praise. The minds of the Media Lab seem to know as much about how to innovate as how to name innovations. 

In Describe Different, I wrote that it’s rarely easy to develop an obvious description for a product hitherto not obvious. The best practice of creating descriptors for innovations requires using words people are familiar with, but combining them in an original way. In a sense, it’s the very essence of creativity itself: combining old things in new ways.

What’s an innovative product descriptor? As an example, a new camera launched last year called the Lytro light field camera. In this case, light field camera is the innovation’s descriptor. Here’s a brief post about my work naming the Lytro. 

When it comes to naming new — really new — products, we can learn a lot from MIT Media Labs. Here are some instructive examples:

“...Systems that blur the boundary between urban lighting and digital displays in public spaces. These systems consist of liberated pixels, which are not confined to rigid frames as are typical urban screens. Liberated pixels can be applied to existing horizontal and vertical surfaces in any configuration, and communicate with each other to enable a different repertoire of lighting and display patterns. We have developed Urban Pixels a wireless infrastructure for liberated pixels.”

Wonderfully original yet self-explanatory, liberated pixels isn’t just a name, it’s a frame. It implies that other pixels are not liberated but are “an oppressed population” confined to the limited dimensions of a screen. Pixels is meant loosely, a metaphor for any point of light that could be illuminated at will in the future photopia the researchers envision. Liberated pixels demonstrates that a name can be distantly metaphoric — literally speaking, the light is neither liberated nor pixels — yet proximate enough to be descriptive. Bonus points for extending the pixels theme with urban pixels to describe the enabling infrastructure.  

“Air Mobs is a community-based P2P cross-operator WiFi tethering market.” 

Air refers to wi-fi — a creative yet familiar application of the word (cf. Apple’s AirPort and AirPlay). Mobs refers to groups of people, here communities and markets. Although mobs can be threatening and unruly, when used in a name, mobs casts off its dark sheen and becomes a playful label for a boisterous crowd. You can read more about the “positivity principle” — the phenomenon that negative words are perceived positively when they appear in a name — in the article, Red Flags and Red Herrings.  

”Storied Navigation is a novel approach to constructing a story based on a collection of digital video and audio. Media sequences are tagged with free-text annotations and stored as a collection. The system can then suggest media based on the context of the story.”

Storied Navigation is a new kind of storytelling named anew. The name’s focus is on the process of navigation (i.e. laying out a plot based on photos and videos) and bringing stories (i.e. annotations) into that process. The name belies the project’s reason for being: Until now, media-based stories have been piecemeal, a patchwork of disparate and disjointed moments that do not tie together into a seamless narrative. With Storied Navigation, a journey through media artifacts is no longer staccato, aimless wandering, but coherent and unified by a purpose: a story. In a fun twist, the word “storied” is not used as it is typically meant (legendary), but more literally yet novelly used to mean imbued with stories.

“...the goal of designing expanded musical instruments, using technology to give extra power and finesse to virtuosic performers. Such hyperinstruments were designed to augment guitars and keyboards, percussion and strings, and even conducting....The research focus of all this work is on designing computer systems (sensors, signal processing, and software) that measure and interpret human expression and feeling, as well as on exploring the appropriate modalities and innovative content of interactive art and entertainment environments. We have also expanded the hyperinstrument environment to include gestural and intuitive control of visual media.”
Hyperinstruments is a successful coined descriptor, denoting musical instruments that are beyond in some way. Hyper- brings many useful meanings: over, above, beyond, exceeding. All are relevant. This descriptor demonstrates that by taking a word that is functionally grounded, it can be augmented with a prefix to shape its meaning. Such a technique could be applied to the same root to derive non-existent neologisms (and innovations) such as meta-instruments (instruments that work beyond the instruments themselves), nano-instruments (the world’s smallest violin), mega-instruments (what Christo would play), auto-instruments (self-playing instruments, like player pianos and computers), bio-instruments (the body as music maker), and hydro-instruments (those whose sound comes from water).


“In essence, it is a 3D printer for food.”
A few noteworthy things on this one. First, they could have called this 3D Food Printer, but they didn’t, at least not in the project description. I hope that in describing a device, it is called the 3D Food Printer because it’s bang-on. Second, Digital Gastronomy is the perfect description of the practice or art of creating food using digital technology. Computer-generated cake art would fall under Digital Gastronomy, as would the 3D Food Printer. Finally, there’s a coy proper name in Cornucopia. It suggests not only abundance, but also CORN!

“EyeRing is a wearable intuitive interface that allows a person to point at an object to see or hear more information about it.”

EyeRing is a solid, descriptive name. I like that it’s an analog to earring, which is not a ring that hears (though: cool) but one you put on your ears. EyeRing is not the only descriptor that might have been for this project: Information Ring, Vision Ring, Digital Ring, Sense Ring, and Ring of Knowledge would be equally descriptive, albeit longer. 

“Watt Watcher is a project that provides in-place feedback on aggregate energy use per device in a format that is easy to understand and intuitively compare.”

Clarity and alliteration: Two points!

“Audio spotlight can target sound very specifically.”

Great innovative descriptors often borrow from established terms in other categories. A spotlight is a beam of light that is narrowly focused. The Audio Spotlight is a beam of sound narrowly focused. Thankfully, whoever coined this didn’t try to rid the name of light by calling it a Spotsound or some such. Smartly, they knew people would give the name latitude and not be confused by the presence of the word light. Today, we rent movies from iTunes, and don’t think twice even though the name suggests music and not video. 

“Singing Fingers allows children to fingerpaint with sound.”

Descriptors don’t have to be boring or rigidly literal. A descriptor like Sonic Fingerpainting would get the job done, but why choose that when you could have Singing Fingers? Singing is understood to mean creating sound, so it fits the bill poetically.  

In the spirit of balance and eschewing unadulterated adulation, I will mention two names that might be a bit off the mark:  

“Prototype furniture concepts that mix ‘apps with the IKEA catalog’ to explore ideas on peripheral awareness, incidental gestures, pre-attentive processing, and eavesdropping interfaces when embedded into our everyday objects.”

A beautiful name, no? Attach ambient to anything and it sounds more beautiful. Ambient contusion. Ambient putrefaction. Ambient booger. See?! Ambient furniture is somewhat misdescriptive, as it’s not furniture that’s ambient but software applications. Ambient apps would be more accurate, but who’s gonna quibble when you have the audacious euphony of Ambient Furniture?   

“The Media Lab is a place where the future is lived, not imagined. Our domain is applying unorthodox research approaches for envisioning the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life. Unconstrained by traditional disciplines, Lab designers, engineers, artists, and scientists work atelier-style, conducting more than 350 projects that range from neuroengineering, to how children learn, to a stackable, electric car for tomorrow’s city.”

With caution and humility, I gently submit that the MIT Media Lab name itself is one of their lesser descriptive name achievements. To its credit, media is a big, broad word and  covers a lot of things: computers, the arts, and scads of other relevant disciplines. But the organization’s groundbreaking work in electric cars, advanced prostheses, social signals in biomedicine, and nanowires push the meaning of media beyond what’s been established. The MIT Media Lab name does not do justice to the scope of the organization: Creating a better future. I would not deign to suggest MIT Media Lab change its venerable name, just as Microsoft shouldn’t change its name just because it sells keyboards and mice, I am merely noting the irony of a reigning name that might fall a bit short of its subjects. 

If you ever have the opportunity to describe something that’s never been described before, I hope these examples from MIT Media Lab inspire you describe greatly.

Fibblestax: A Naming Storybook

Have you heard about the boy who names everything?

His name is Fibblestax. It’s him we have to thank for words like mother, whisper, crackers and rain.

You probably thought these elemental English words had no single inventor. I certainly did. But author Devin Scillian reveals the truth about where names really come from in his delightful children’s book, Fibblestax.

I was first introduced to Fibblestax through Hugh Levaux, a client for whom I named the clinical trial research company, Bracket. In our second meeting, Hugh told me what he recently told his five-year-old daughter, “You know who I met today? Fibblestax.”

I looked at Hugh quizzically, quickly blinking the way one does when confused or lost in conversation.

“Uh...who’s Fibblestax?” I asked.

Hugh was stunned. “You don’t know Fibblestax?! He’s the boy who names everything!”

Go ooooon!
After our meeting, I ran home (on BART) and found Fibblestax on Amazon. With an inkling that this book about the boy who named everything would be important to me, I sought and bought a first edition signed by the author, Devin Scillian. (At the time, I thought that I’d like to talk with the author someday. Months later I did, and our conversation will be featured in a future blog post.)

Like Navin Johnson when the new phonebook arrived, I greeted the delivery of Fibblestax at my door with loud outbursts of joy.

Fibblestax is here! Fibblestax is here!

Fibblestax is beautifully illustrated by calligrapher Kathryn Darnell. Adorning the covers and every page between, her rustic pencil illustrations are richly textured. The endpaper features a selection of words writ large and small in varying styles of calligraphy. They are words for which we have Fibblestax to thank: daffodil, armadillo, hatchet, rutabaga, jug.
Kathryn Darnell illustrates why calligraphy means beautiful writing.
Fibblestax is not just about Fibblestax. The story tells us of the proto-namer who preceded Fibblestax:
His name was Carr, a red-faced man
who sat on a hickory trunk, 
And gave terrible names to wonderful things
like toad and snake and skunk
He thought up all the awful words
in a careless, haughty way, 
Words like sphere and xylophone
and others I can’t say.
Carr, with a face befitting his names.
Fibblestax: A boy and his names.
Fibblestax spent his time considering the names Carr invented and dreaming up better ones. Fibblestax was named by Carr, so it’s understandable he would want to outsmart the one responsible for his own awkward moniker.

Fibblestax taunted Carr ever-sweetly with names better than the ones Carr dredged up:
This gloobywickus in my cup
why it looks like cream.…
And I much prefer the sound of flowers
to the sound of gunnywunks.
Taking offense, Carr challenged Fibblestax to a naming contest. An announcement was issued to the community:
The things we say,
the trinkets of our tongue.
Shall it be Carr the elder
or Fibblestax the young? 
By order of the mayor,
come this very day
and weigh these worthy wordsmiths
come without delay.
In this epic naming battle for the ages, the mayor would describe a thing that needed a name, and Fibblestax and Carr would each name it, then the people would judge. Fibblestax happened to come up with the very words we use today for those things. In all fairness, the deck was stacked against Carr. [Hey, Devin, how about a sequel from the perspective of Carr, a la Grendel?]
Fibblestax vs. Carr: War of the Words
As a namer, I appreciated the inventiveness of Carr’s ugly words. Quoting Mr. Scillian from our soon-to-be-published interview, “The words had to be wrong in just the right way.”

Consider for yourself the names invented by each: Carr came up with droog, where Fibblestax came up with rain. And Carr called poonies what the boy called crackers (“for that’s how crackers sound”).

The last word Carr could not name, for it described a feeling Carr never felt:
This is that feeling, that very strange feeling,
a dreamy kind of cheer.
That feeling that makes you feel so good
when a special friend is near.
Fibblestax knew what to call that feeling. He called it love.

The judges swooned. Fibblestax was victorious. At the celebration, there was lots of hugging and crying and singing into the night. I’d wager Fibblestax invented the word kumbaya at some point.

This is love.
The story closes with a conversation between the author and Fibblestax, suggesting the boy give himself a better name:
“Oh no,” he says, “I’ll not do that.
It’s a little reminder for me
To always find the perfect name
for all the things I see.
And yet,” he says, “it’s what’s inside.
A name sometimes distracts.
For everyone’s a special soul.
Even one named Fibblestax.” 
The book about the boy who names everything admits to the limits of names. It’s true, names can’t do everything. A great product can succeed despite a lousy name, and a great name won’t salvage a lousy product.

But names are not nothing, either. They do matter. Every time you think of a thing, you think of its name. Every time you talk about a thing, you speak its name. I, for one, would much rather have wonderful words echoing in my thoughts and speech instead of ugly ones. Wouldn’t you?

Thank you, Devin, for introducing us to the quintessential namer, Fibblestax. And thank you, Fibblestax, for your wonderful names.

Readers, stay tuned. My interview with author Devin Scillian will be posted soon!