What’s in a name?

Oct 6, 2011 by

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

While the great bard might have believed that names carry no meaning besides that which they denote, in recent years advertising executives have come to a realization that a given product under a different name may not smell quite as sweet. For example, the name BlackBerry evokes much friendlier, sweeter associations than the original name proposed for this product — MegaMail — which, with its connotations of an unstoppable avalanche of virtual messages, raised the blood pressure of potential customers and could inspire panic rather than confidence. This is why more and more companies turn to branding experts, such as those at Lexicon Branding, a small company located in Sausalito, California and dedicated since its creation in 1982 exclusively to creating new brand names. (An article by John Colapinto in the October 3 issue of The New Yorker retells the history of Lexicon Branding).

Among the successful brands created by Lexicon Branding are Apple’s Powerbook and Intel’s Pentium, Subaru’s Outback and GM’s On-Star, Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Truvia, drug brand names Humira and Meridia, and Procter & Gamble’s Febreze and Swiffer.

While part of the branding process is creative art, the science of linguistics helps too. That’s why Lexicon Branding employs two in-house linguists and consults with other professionals world-wide. One aspect of linguistics research in the area of branding involves sound symbolism: it has been shown that certain sounds convey specific attributes better than others. Take, for example, nonse words taketa and naluma: which of the patterns in the picture below suits which word better?

If you are like most people surveyed by the Lexicon Branding team, you chose taketa for the pattern on the left and naluma for the pattern on the right. But why?

According to sound symbolism research, obstruent sounds like [t] and [k] in taketa are perceived as harder and sharper and hence suit better the angular shaped pattern, while sonorants like [n], [l], [m] in naluma are perceived as softer and smoother, more suited to the rounder shapes of the pattern on the right.

Or try this questionnaire:

  • Which headache tablet sounds faster: Pavil or Bavil?
  • Which computer sounds more compact: Gortan or Kortan?
  • Which car sounds faster: Sarrant or Tarrant?
  • Which car sounds faster: Faldon or Valdon?
  • Which computer sounds faster: Taza or Paza?
  • Which car sounds more dependable: Bazia or Vazia?
  • Which computer sounds more dependable: Gamza or Damza?

Most people surveyed — interestingly, regardless of their mother tongue — chose Pavil, Kortan, Sarrant, Valdon, Taza, Bazia and Damza. Thus, it appears that voiceless stops — [p], [t], [k] — carry a greater connotation of speed than do voiced stops [b], [d], [g]. Furthermore, fricatives like [v], [f], [s], [z], regardless of their voicing, connote speed even better than stops [b], [p], [d], [t]. And with fricatives voicing seems to work differently than with stops: voiced fricatives [v] and [z] connote speed better than voiceless fricatives [f], [s]. But while fricatives are better for connoting speed, stops [b], [p], [t], [d] work better than fricatives [v], [f], [s], [z] to connote dependability. Finally, place articulation plays a role too: for example, alveolars [t], [d], [s] and [z] connote speed better than labials [p], [b], [f] and [v]. Other sound-related properties of words that matter for branding include the articulatory properties of the vowels, syllable structure, length and rythm.

So what about BlackBerry? The gadget’s small, oval keys look like the drupelets of a blackberry. One brand name idea that came up during Lexicon Branding’s brainstorming sessions was Strawberry, but the initial consonant cluster [str] makes the word sound slow. In contrast, the two alliterating [b] sounds of BlackBerry connote both speed and dependability, while the symmetry of the alliteration itself adds the feeling of “lightheartedness”. Plus, the final [i] helps connote the idea of the gadget’s diminutive size and compactness.

Or take the household brand Swiffer Sweeper vis-a-vis its competitor, Ready Mop.

Clearly, Swiffer’s sounding brings to mind ‘swift’, but how? The consonants [s] and [f] make the sound of something brushing — and rushing — across the floor. The short high front vowel [i] makes the motion even quicker, while the suffix -er helps link the name to the comparative form swifter and to sweeping tools, like duster, cleaner and scrubber.

Finally, let’s consider the Lexicon Branding creation, the brand name ZIMA.

According to the Lexicon Branding website, the original thinking behind the name, was that zima is the Russian word for ‘winter’: “Russian vodka is the quintessential clear alcoholic beverage, associated with both the aristocracy and the common man”. And the idea of the biting winter cold sits well with a vodka-based drink. Orthographically, ZIMA has nothing but straight, angular letters (no O, R, S, B, D, etc.), which reinforces the clarity, light taste and simplicity of the beverage.

Let’s now look closer at the anatomy of the name, its sound properties. The word consists of two syllables, each consisting of a consonant (C) and a vowel (V). The resulting prosodic shape — CVCV — is the universally preferred shape for words in all languages. Crucially too, the stress is intended to fall on the first syllable: ['zi.ma]. This gives us a very simple trochaic pattern, which is the preferred pattern for small children acquiring virtually any human language. For example, kids acquiring English often shorten words to fit this trochaic pattern, so banana becomes [nǽ.nə], potato becomes [téjtə] and macaroni becomes [róni] (hence also the brand name “Rice & Roni”). Moreover, many English nursery rhymes too fit the trochaic pattern:

  • Mary had a little lamb…
  • Twinkle, twinkle little star…
  • Jack and Jill went up the hill…
  • London Bridge is broken down…
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper…
  • Simple Simon met a pieman…
  • Betty Botter bought some butter…
  • Hickup, hickup, go away!…

And the trochaic pattern is typically achieved by hypocoristic (short) names in English (Billy, Johnny, Marty, Bobby, etc.), as well as in other languages. For example, although in Hebrew normally stress falls on the ultimate (last) syllable, hypocoristics follow the trochaic pattern (and sometimes the first part of the name is dropped), so Benjamin becomes [bíbi], Yakov becomes [kóbi], Itzhak becomes [xáki] and Rachel becomes [xéli].

Since it already sounds like a nickname, it was thought that ZIMA would be a great bar-call. My only problem with that is that the Russian word for ‘winter’, which served as the inspiration of ZIMA, is pronounced with the stress on the second (last) syllable: [zi.'ma] rather than ['zi.ma]!

So next time you grab a brand name product of a shelf, consider whether by any other name it would attract your attention as well.


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  • John Cowan

    "Rice-a-Roni" rather than "Rice & Roni".

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Sure, thanks for the correction.

  • Lauren

    So interesting! Great things to know if you ever need to name a product.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thanks, Lauren! Actually, the company's creator has complained that he gets too many requests from people to help them name their children!

  • MOCKBA

    Asya, but taketa & naluma doodles aren't Lexicon's inventions, after all. They were first tested in 1929 by Wolfgang Köhler, and when V. Ramachandran resurrected them under as CVCV-compliant kiki and bouba, he specifically set out to prove that there is no linguistic underpinnings in our name preferences. Ramachandran posited that Köhler's correlation is a case of pervasive synesthesia, i.e. some fundamental linkup of sensory areas within our normal brains. The evidence was three-fold (comparing speakers of very dissimilar languages; testing pre-verbal toddlers; and testing people with presumed brain wiring abnormalities).

    Could you please expound on your passing reference to "sound symbolism research"? Especially with respect to your interpretation of its results, do you think that it supports the synesthesia hypothesis, or a proto-language fossil kind of a hypothesis?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @MOCKBA: Thank you for your comment and for sharing this additional information! It is my understanding that TAKETA/NALUMA have been tested by LB, even if they didn't invent them. As for your general question about the sound symbolism research, as far as I know, most of it has focused on finding out patterns that hold within and across languages, with less focus on the why question. It may well be synesthesia with some elements of iconicity (e.g. /i/ is pronounced with a small opening in the mouth and tends to connote smallness, though not in all languages, as has been recently discovered, when African languages were explored in this respect).

  • MOCKBA

    Just posted my interpretation of "the story of the two doodles", from a different perspective, on rio Wang ; it cites your story in the closing lines, too.
    Thanks for your great blog, and happy holiday season to you (and ни пуха ни пера for the finals to the students :) ) !

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @MOCKBA: Thanks for the link to my blog and the good wishes!

  • Dm
    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the link!