Visit theallusionist.org/brand to read about or hear this episode.
This is The Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, inflate language then tie it into the shape of a poodle.
Coming up in today’s show: what’s in a name? Extensive research and development, for a start. Plus: Allusionist origin story!
But first, a little word history, sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. I’m desperate to slow down the atrophy of my brain, so I’m extremely happy to have the massive library of The Great Courses Plus video lectures on a huge range of subjects - history, psychology, food, travel, business, crime - and yes! Linguistics! Lots of treats for our kind, listeners. I’m getting stuck into The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins - I’ve just been watching the installment called ‘Spinster, Bachelor, Guy, Dude’ which is about the influence of gender on language, and vice versa. It’s SO interesting. The series also covers slang, sports, the language of love, and gives an excellent grounding in the history of English and the many different processes that shape language. They’ve done my job for me. Come on in, listeners, the water’s lovely - and free, because The Great Courses Plus are giving you Allusionist listeners a month’s free trial of their service, so you can watch this course - or any of the thousands of other courses, whatever takes your fancy - gratis. Start your free month today at thegreatcoursesplus.com/Allusion.
And thanks to the Great Courses Plus, here’s the etymology of a word for which I feel a visceral revulsion, but I’ll be using it several times in the course of this episode, so I have to deal with it: 'trend'. When I was growing up, ‘trendy’ was one of the most cringe-inducing words, outside of the ones used in biology class. It has been retooled in recent years as ‘on trend’ but I see you, trendy, hiding in your new jacket.
Granted, ‘trendy’, coined in 1962, is currently not on trend, but several other forms of the word are. And I’ve been trying and so far failing to trace the past few years’ developments in the use of ‘trend’ and ‘trending’, to insinuate ‘a tide of online popularity’. That sense may not have been invented by Twitter, when it added the ‘trending topics’ feature in April 2009, but it certainly accelerated it.
Going back in time, there are a few meanings of ‘trend’ - it’s an obscure English word for clean wool; it’s a part of a ship’s anchor, as well as another nautical term for the angle made by the direction of the anchor line and the ship’s keel - which is probably where, as of the late 19th century, ‘trend’ began to mean more generally the direction something was going. But before that, it was a geographical term: the curvature of mountains and hills and, earlier, of rivers and coastlines, because ‘trend’ is recorded in the 1590s as meaning the direction in which rivers ran and bent. It came from the Old English ‘trendan’, to roll around or revolve, which shares an ancient root with the Old English word ‘trinde’ that meant a round lump or ball.
So think about that next time someone says something like, “Crop tops are so on trend.” Just balls.
On with the show.
HZ: In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded a book retail company named ‘Cadabra’, as in ‘Abracadabra’. But his lawyer misheard it as ‘cadaver’, so instead, Bezos opted to call it Amazon. It’s the world’s biggest river by volume, matching Bezos’s ambitions for the company; and back then in 1995, lists of websites were often alphabetical, so starting with A was cunning; and it was not likely to be mistaken for a dead body. Which is a useful criterion when naming a company. Amongst others:
NANCY FRIEDMAN: The three golden rules: it has to be memorable, has to be pronounceable, has to be legally available.
HZ: This is Nancy Friedman, she's a name developer.
NF: A name developer creates names, taglines, for companies, products, organisations… I’ve done book titles occasionally. Things like that.
HZ: When you're launching or rebranding a company or a product, you might hire a name developer like Nancy to help ensure you ace the name. She'll do a ton of research on different options, checking they don't infringe trademarks, that they aren't already being used by a big company, that if the product will be available in foreign countries, its name will be pronounceable there. For one job, she might be working on hundreds of possible names.
NF: ..because you have to develop a lot of names to get one good name. Usually you’re aiming for three names. Then the lawyers take over. This is art, science, craft, and law - and a lot of psychology and salesmanship. Legal is the one that really gets us in trouble. I always advise a client not to choose a name a big company has some claim on. That’s just not a smart idea.
HZ: I feel a little chuckle in my soul every time I walk past my local private investigation agency, Finlay’s Bureau of Investigation. They go by FBI Ltd. FBI. FBI. Either they're cheekily attempting to pick up some runoff from the other FBI, or they didn't do much investigation into potential rivals for brand recognition. Or maybe they merely wanted to be able to say, when someone asks, “Where do you work?”
“I’m with the FBI.”
“Wow! Is it just like it is in all the films?”
“Not that FBI, the other FBI.”
“What other FBI?”
“Oh come on, not this again...”
Nancy would not overlook the existence of another FBI when developing a name.
NF: The first step is gathering information. I used to be a journalist, and that’s where that comes in handy. I interview my client and whoever else is on the team; sometimes I’ve interviewed their clients. I’m trying to find out the brand personality, what the name needs to express, if they have any dos or don’ts - sometimes clients have these fixed ideas about what a name needs to be, we talk about that.
HZ: Are you often saving them from themselves?
NF: Oh...yes. Like I said, a lot of this is psychology, and I’m part therapist. There’s a lot that goes on. People get extremely emotional about names. They’ll get attached to a code name; they’ll have a very strong negative reaction to a name that evokes their childhood, eg their pet dog that died. There are artificial rules - I had a client tell me ⅔ through the process that we can’t have a name that ends in a vowel sound. For no particular reason; he had some instinctive negative reaction against names that end in vowels. “All successful brands end in a consonant.” I pointed out some exceptions.
HZ: Coca-Cola… Pepsi… IKEA… Toyota… Volvo… Hulu… If you wanted to make something of yourselves, you should’ve listened to that guy and put a 'K' on the end.
NF: Then there is the problem of the too large team, in which there’s a desperate attempt to arrive at consensus so no decision gets made. There’s the “My niece just told me she has a better name,” or “I was golfing one day and my golfing partner said, ‘Why don’t you try this name?’” - never having read the naming brief, which is an important first step. After the information-gathering, I write a detailed naming brief, and not using that naming brief for what it is meant for is a big pitfall.
HZ: My niece told me not to read the brief, so...
Read the brief, get the name right, and your brand might be sorted for decades. But that’s not necessarily what companies want.
NF: There are a lot of startups that aren’t branding for the long-term; they’re hoping to get bought. For them, the name is low priority.
HZ: And it shows. In some of the unimaginative names.
NF: They tend to go in herds, they follow trends. I have started creating Pinterest boards of naming trends. I’ve started seeing this with names that end ‘-ly’. I collected something like 280 of them. And I’m sure I missed many, but there’s Filterly. Flightly. Two companies called Boxly. Peercisely.
HZ: The -ly trend is showing no signs of slowing yet. And another suffix trend that has been going strong for several years already is ‘ify’. Globify. Eventify.
HZ: Coworkify. Fluentify.
NF: Then there’s 8ify.
HZ: You can make any word into a verb, making your company sound active and dynamic. You can do it even if the word was already a verb! Like ‘Explainify’.
NF: So they were all following - a colleague of mine has tracked this, Chris Johnson, the Name Inspector - he tracked this all to the success of Spotify, which is a name created out of a mishearing.
HZ: Daniel Ek says his cofounder Martin Lorentzen shouted something from another room, which he misheard as ‘cadaver’. Sorry - ‘Spotify’.
NF: So he thought it sounded great, and that’s what it is. Occasionally they’ve made up stories about meaning, but it has no meaning.
HZ: In a way that’s better - it only means Spotify.
NF: It only means Spotify... So everybody leapt onto that bandwagon and thought if they could do it, we could do it.
HZ: It does seem to be the way that the ones with a new name do well, and the ones following the trend don’t do so well.
NF: Of course.
HZ: One long-lasting trend that now seems to be simmering down is removing the vowels from the last syllable of a word - Flickr and Tumblr have outlived the trend they spurred, but Twitter, which started out as Twittr, put the E back in a few months after they launched, when they were able to buy the twitter.com domain off the person who already owned it. Devowelution has often resulted from pragmatism.
NF: Tumblr is pretty old now - 12 years? They dropped the E just to get an available domain. Flickr, same thing. And it looks distinctive, and there was some inherent meaning. We’re seeing it less in a suffix; we’re seeing the dropping of all the vowels now. There’s a company in San Francisco called Black Denim, BLKDNM.
HZ: It’s a risk - if you weren’t familiar with Black Denim, you might insert the wrong vowels. Bloke Dynamo. Balked Name.
NF: Yes, that is a liability. Like the vowels are the fat to be cut out; we’re getting to the meat of the name.
HZ: Except the vowels are like the journey you take between the consonants.
NF: They didn’t ask me. Clearly.
HZ: Are you pro-vowel?
NF: Yes. I like a good vowel.
HZ: I didn’t ask Nancy what she thought of 'The Allusionist', because at this stage it’s too late to do anything about it if she thinks it’s no good, and we already had enough trouble coming up with it, as you’ll hear right after this message from today’s sponsor, Fallen London, the text adventure game to which many of you have lost a lot of time, I gather. But you don’t seem at all sad about that. Because you get to roam around London that has been hidden a mile underground; it’s riddled with eccentric characters and talking tigers and squid-people, and your character can be pansexual and gender non-binary - so even though this is a version of Victorian London, in some ways it’s more progressive than the real present-day one.
You can play Fallen London for free, but when you create an account at failbettergames.com/allusionist, you’ll get some gifts that you can use in the game when you play it in your browser or the new Fallen London app.
Back to names.
HZ: There are a few things to consider when naming a podcast.
- Is someone using the name already? That’s important: do your research; at the very least, go to the iTunes store and check.
- Is the name such a common word or phrase that your show will not appear in the first thousand pages of Google results?
- Is the name a riff on a pre-existing title, like That American Life, so no matter how successful your show gets, it will never completely be your own, and always a bit of a parasite on someone else's thing?
- Is it a riff on ‘pod’ or ‘cast’? That was already stale when I was starting my first podcast nearly ten years ago. Resist the pod puns!
Here’s the story of how the name of this show came about. It’s autumn 2014, and I’m strolling with Radiotopia sovereign and 99% Invisible host Roman Mars, suggesting to him that I make a podcast about language.
ROMAN MARS: I remember walking around Crystal Palace park when it first started, and you originally - I can’t remember what the original name was.
HZ: The original name spawned the idea of the show. The phrase ‘word detective’ sprang into my head, so that was the working title. But you disliked that.
RM: I don’t know why I disliked it. It felt like the first thing you would think of. Which it was. I wanted something that would make the idea of searching for words a little more evocative, a little more poetic.
HZ: But then you supplied some suggestions, I don’t know if you recall those. They included Communique, Idiomatic, Phraseology and Semantic Drift.
RM: I liked ‘Idiomatic’, because I liked the idea of ‘idiot’, I guess, embedded in there. I thought if I saw Idiomatic, I would click on it. Semantic Drift was the one I was most infatuated with; or at least I’m projecting my current fascination with that one now.
HZ: To pass muster with Roman, the name of my show couldn’t be silly, but also it couldn’t be too serious, because I didn’t want to choke on my own sheepish laughter whenever I said it. Another obstacle is that a lot of people, less discerning than you, staunch listeners, assume that a show about language is going to be dry and hectoring about incorrect grammar, so the name had to be not-boring to counteract assumptions of boringness.
So I asked my friends for their suggestions on Facebook. And the puns rolled in.
Linguistic Pizza - little tribute to Julia Roberts’s movie debut Mystic Pizza there...
A Guy Called Gerund
Subtext Adventure - like 'text adventure', get it? No, nobody did.
Diphthongs are Forever
High Gloss - that’s a philology pun, not a fun one like a Guy Called Gerund.
Death and Syntaxes
Adverb and the Ants.
Actually some of these are amazing. Why didn't I choose them?
And then came the wordy suggestions. Wordplay. Word Up. Wordsmith - which was a pre-existing religious podcast. A Whole New Word. A lot of friends suggested the word ‘words’ as the title. That fails the googleable rule, for a start. Word Nerds, which - just because it rhymes doesn’t mean it’s right.
But far too many people’s favourite option was the name ‘More Than Words’.
“Call it More than Words! It’s perfect, because then the theme tune could be the song of the same name by the band Extreme!”
[clip: Extreme - ‘More Than Words
More than words
Is all you have to do to make it real,
Then you wouldn't have to say that you love me,
'Cause I'd already know.]
If you’re not familiar with 'More Than Words' by Extreme, imagine a 1990 soft rock ballad version of the 17th century poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell. If you’re not familiar with To His Coy Mistress OR Extreme, just imagine several minutes of pseudo-romantic sexual coercion. IT’S NOT IN THE SPIRIT OF MY WORK.
Also this podcast isn’t ‘more than words’. It’s me using words to talk about words, it’s pretty much ONLY words. But I also didn’t want to call it that, because I didn’t want to open this floodgate:
[clip: Boyzone - 'Words'
It's only words
And words are all I have
To take your heart away...]
HZ: Fortunately, Roman stepped in and said:
RM: Any name with the word ‘word’ in it was an admission of defeat.
HZ: But why did you say there should not be ‘words’ in the title of a words show?
RM: I dunno, it’s too on the nose. If it’s the first thing you think of, it’s usually wrong, when it comes to names. It should be a little more mysterious.
HZ: You want the title to be more flirtatious.
RM: Yeah… Good titles are pretty universal, in the sense that they shouldn’t reference the subject too directly. My whole thing was, I couldn’t have ‘design’ in the name of my show. I was completely adamant that it not have the word ‘design’ in it. A show deserves better.
HZ: Roman surveyed a roomful of architects and designers, wanting to pick out some element of their process that he could turn into the name for his architecture and design show.
RM: At some point, someone mentioned, “If we’re doing a good job, it’s pretty much invisible.” And that’s how 99% Invisible came to be.
HZ: Bam, job done, no need to rake through a verbal compost heap like we did for this show. Subtext. Upshot. Detectionary. Under the Tongue. Verbal Lint - I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Mind Your Language - which is also a 70s sitcom full of dodgy jokes about foreigners who can’t speak English properly; like I said, check the name isn’t already in use.
By this point, there were more than 100 names being thrown around, and I hated them all. Naturally I turned to the thesaurus for solace. And a solution.
HZ: I remember the moment I thought up the word ‘Allusionist’. And I texted it to you even though you were pretty much in the same room.
RM: Yeah! I was in the back of the room.
HZ: We’re podcasters, why would we communicate face to face?
Roman’s text in response: “Yes yes yes yes”.
HZ: Why did you like it?
RM: I liked it because it was both evocative, and an empty vessel which you could fill with your own personality, and the personality of the show. And it had a little bit of that 'Word Detective' - you were the one who was the guide.
HZ: The Allusionist sounds like a person. Or at least it did to my husband Martin, who started acting it out around the house. These antics spawned the theme tune.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: A word's in trouble? This sounds like a job for...The Allusionist! [strums theme tune]
RM: It sounds like a detective theme to me a bit, so it was harkening back to that in my head. [sings]. It’s a bit Mission: Impossible. It has a good forward momentum. I really like it. It’s a good theme.
HZ: I imagine the Semantic Drift music would have been a lot more ambient.
RM: It would have been more like the tink-tink music that I like to talk over.
[Tink-tink music: melodium ‘i’ve been here before’]
HZ: This is Semantic Drift, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, keep a respectful distance from language...
Oh, what could have been.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the greatest podcasts on the interwaves. Including, of course, the bossman’s show 99% Invisible. And one of my favourites, Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. In 100 years’ time, when the rest of our podcasts have disappeared like a fart in a gale, Benjamen’s show will be the one being studied in universities. Hear it, and all the Radiotopians, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia exists thanks to the support of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
xeric, adjective, ecology: containing little moisture; very dry.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with the new Allusionist team, Devon Taylor and Cheeka Eyers. Martin Austwick wrote the theme tune - sorry, Extreme. Thanks to Brie Hughes and Jane Solomon, and of course Nancy Friedman. You can read fascinating pieces about naming and the language of commerce on Nancy’s excellent blog Fritinancy. And she writes for Strong Language and Visual Thesaurus, both of which sites are relevant to your linguistic interests. I’ll link to them all at theallusionist.org/brand.
You can find me at twitter.com/allusionistshow and facebook.com/allusionistshow, where some of you have been giving me some really useful suggestions for making theallusionist.org more accessible. Thus far I’ve added the episode transcripts, so if it’s not an option for you to hear the show, you can read it; and I’m working on tweaking some of the code and the text on the site so it works a little better if you’re using a screen reader. I don’t have many web design smarts, but if you have spotted ways the website could be improved for visitors with limited hearing and vision, let me know, and I’ll try to make them happen. Together we can make this better. Visit the show at theallusionist.org.
Unless I should consider one of the alternatives...?
RM: Idiomatic works! It would still work!
HZ: It would work for NPR just fine.