The Subtleties of Etymology, Phonetics and Linguistics When Naming

We do a lot of naming. About a third of our business comes from it, and we have a real passion for both the creative and the process of landing a name within an organization. There’s no ONE thing that makes a name great. Great names can come from all over the naming spectrum, some of the subtleties of the implicit impact of a name are less obvious. That’s where the three elements of a great name come in: etymology [1], phonetics and linguistics. Take a look at some of our recent client work below and how we applied our three elements.

Redfin - Open Book Directory

Open Book Directory is a place to find ratings and contact information for service professionals in the home buying and selling industry, brought to the public by Redfin. One of the Redfin promises is transparency to the buyer and seller. While it’s a descriptive name, as the directory needed to work well for SEO as well as telegraph easily what it is, the name works hard.

It’s emotional: By using two single-syllable words, the name lands emotionally. If we study the origin of words, single syllable (often) Germanic-based words are often less precise than their (often) Latin-based cousins, which give them a punchier, more emotional feeling. Germanic-based words are older than their Latin-based cousins, and therefore strike deeper at the limbic part of the brain, rather than the part of the brain that deals with precision (think cow vs. beef, as an example. They both are defining an animal, but one is the entire animal in any context and the other is the animal only in a culinary context). It’s also layered: By using an idiom that also can be read literally, it’s able to land both the denotation of the offering as well as the connotation of a promise of transparency. This layering can be hard to achieve in a descriptive name, as the goal is to clearly describe what the thing is you’re naming. The name manages to describe what it is while also offering why it might benefit you.

Microsoft - Azure Sphere

A new Linux-based technology for microprocessors used in Internet of Things devices (like your garage door opener, your fridge, your blender, a kid’s toy, etc.). Think of it like an “atmosphere” of technologies all connected to the security and management of the Microsoft cloud.

The magic of this name is employing a word, “sphere”, most often used in its combing form as a suffix. It brings a whole new meaning to the name it’s combined with, and in this case the connotation of Azure as synonymous with “cloud” makes the subtle reference to “atmosphere” even more powerful. The denotation of sphere also works, which is key to the name not landing as too “punny.”

Amazon - Echo

The Echo was the first device to bring you Alexa, which launched simultaneously to the Echo. The word “echo” dates all the way back to ancient Greek and has an agelessness. It has a slight onomatopoeic [2] quality, as well, with the “o” ending that seems to do just what the word defines. An echo is also a form of response, and the idea of responsiveness is a very human spin on one of the most mainstream in-home AI applications on the market. By considering the phonetics of the word, it helps amplify its meaning and resonance.

Magic: The Gathering - ARENA

This is a game of lore and legend, the world’s most popular trading card game, where the best players make their living off the game and the entire home office is made of folks who found their way to their jobs through playing. When we were tasked with naming the online version, we landed on Magic: The Gathering ARENA

While it’s clear that the name is suggestive and metaphorical, there are less obvious aspects that make it work so well. First, it’s etymology is directly linked from English to Latin, which is a language of epics. The word itself employs consonance [3], which makes for a pleasant sound to say and hear, but specifically it starts and ends with a schwa [4] sound. This symmetry in sound and the softness of the schwa, as well as it’s use in generally more “formal” sounding dialectics of the English language, lends the name some grandeur that’s just perfect for the game.

Sema4 - Natalis

Natalis, by Sema4, is a DNA test for newborns that covers far more screenings than your typical heel prick test at the hospital. The target audience is expectant mothers in their second or third trimester who are thinking about the baby they are about to bring into the world. The test is purchased by mothers and fathers, with approval from their pediatrician (once the baby is born) and with oversight from a pediatrician at Sema4.

The feminine character over this name is balanced by a sense of scientific precision. Evocative of a woman’s name, while building on the Latin-based word “natal” (Natalis is actually a Latin word for birthday or anniversary), the name speaks directly to its audience (mothers) and to what it is (screening for babies).

The name is also reminiscent of “nautilus”, which is a word from ancient Greek. A nautilis is a symbol of renewal and expansion, and literally meaning “sail”, so the allusion fits the promise of the baby screening test to help give early insight into what may come up over the life of a baby, because early action against diseases can actually dampen their impact, often to a great extent.

Thankfully by working with our wonderful clients we can help them explore and incorporate one or more of the three no-so-obvious elements of a great name. When you’re naming next, we would encourage you to consider how these elements increase the depth and resonance of your name. The more your name can resonate and work harder for you, the greater the business outcome. If you need support naming, please do not hesitate to write us.

[1] the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history

[2] the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named (e.g., cuckoo, sizzle )

[3]  the recurrence of similar sounds, especially consonants, in close proximity

[4] the unstressed central vowel (as in a mom-e-nt a-go), represented by the symbol (ə) in the International Phonetic Alphabet



Samantha Temple Neukom | Founding Partner, Chief Brand Officer


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