by Brandon Smith
The English language is constantly evolving. Experts at Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary perennially add words that have been invented and accepted in our daily lexicons. The practice can be controversial, however, since it sometimes involves removing other, older words entirely.
For instance, the term “cassette tape” was recently extracted after it was deemed unnecessary and redundant. Both “cassette” and “tape” were in the dictionary already, and the words naturally refer to each other.
Lit majors and writers may get emotional when certain words disappear, but the practice nonetheless reveals where our language is heading. When examining recently added words, it comes as no surprise that many of these words are tech-related.
In particular, for a brand to gain entry into one of the world’s foremost dictionaries it must be deemed a universal, generic term. Take “Xerox” for example. The brand name is so common that it has since become a verb, as well: “Sheila, xerox that memo for me, would you?”
You’ve probably noticed that many startup names, especially those in the tech industry, appear rather strange at first. What did you think when you first heard about a little website called Twitter? Admittedly, using a word potentially associated with caffeinated agitation was a little risky.
Startups intending to make a splash walk a thin line during the naming process. If successful, brand name chatter can help drive awareness and fuel much-needed buzz. So, how should a startup go about creating an orignal, memorable name that will perhaps earn a place in the pantheon of iconic brands?
David Placek, president and founder of Lexicon Branding, knows a thing or two about brand names that stick. He and his team have created several extremely well-known brand names, such as BlackBerry, PowerBook, Pentium and Swiffer, to name a few.
Placek shared three things to keep in mind when creating a new brand name. First, be distinctive. Coining a new word will help set a brand apart, and may even help a business move more quickly through the marketplace. “Think of Java or BlackBerry,” says Placek. “Both are food-related, but when applied to technology brands, they suddenly take on new meaning.”
Second, the word should be catchy and interesting. “Twitter invented a new routine of communication, and so they necessarily invented a name that signals innovation,” says Placek.
Finally, Placek believes the name should sound positive. “The name Twitter is light and easy, and has a nice blend of letters,” he says.
So, how do other tech brand names fare? The Name Inspector blog has compiled and organized a list of companies by their linguistic tendencies. Site creator Christopher Johnson divides well-known websites into groups, like “Real Names,” “Blends” and “Affixed Words.”
One particular naming convention caught our eye. Many startups have chosen to use the “-ster” suffix, as in Flixster, Friendster, Napster, Dogster, Feedster, et al. Placek maintains this convention is an easy way to “indicate action.” The original usage can be traced back to 1936, to a word you may not realize also doubles a brand name: Dumpster. The Dempster brothers played on their last name, and the term became the industry term for a “standardized metal waste container.”
To better understand how brand names are entered into dictionaries, we touched base with Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, Inc. We wanted to know if brands like Google are close to gaining entry.
“Before a brand name can be entered in the dictionary, we usually look for evidence of generic use: Kleenex, Dumpster, Q-Tip, Jeep,” says Sokolowski. “As a verb, ’xerox’ means ‘to make a photocopy,’ not ‘to use a Xerox-brand machine.’ Google is a bit different, since it usually does mean ’to use the Google search engine.’”
Brands like Google aren’t quite at the Xerox level yet, although we reckon they are close. Yahoo and Bing, as well as some other niche search engines, still have enough market share that the verb “to google” isn’t yet ubiquitous. That is, the verb refers to the process of using the Google search engine, not to searching in general.
The same goes for “facebooking,” “tweeting” or “youtubing,” says Sokolowski. “Obviously ‘facebook’ as a verb is specific to that one site. The same could be said for ‘youtube.’ The model for these words is ‘google’ (as a verb) and not ‘xerox.’”
If Google still has a ways to go, then your startup has even further. But Placek has some advice for startups, citing two quotes that guide his own work. First, from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A man’s mind once stretched, never goes back to where it was.” And second, from author George Orwell’s essay Why I Write: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Both speak to the power language has to enhance our perception, and both suggest that time spent envisioning a great product name is not spent in vain. In fact, Placek believes we should be dedicating more time to this part of the process.
“Fundamentally, a name can do a lot for you,” Placek continues. “It can add several dimensions. It’s the beginning of your story…It can make a great product move in the marketplace more efficiently, and then it can become a stronger brand, in the end.”
As prevalent as brands like Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube are in our daily lives, they’ve not yet reached the pinnacle of brand success: becoming verbs unto themselves. But we predict a few of them just might make the jump in the coming decades.
Which tech brand names do you think will eventually become so commonplace that they reach contemporary dictionaries? Let us know in the comments below.