Because naming involves words, it’s often discussed and evaluated as if it were primarily a matter of verbal communication, like a special kind of copywriting. Actually naming lies at the intersection of communication and design. That’s true of verbal branding more generally, but it’s especially true of naming.

Names communicate because they use verbal elements to evoke ideas and feelings. But names seldom convey explicit messages with what our philosopher friends call “propositional content”–something that can be true or false. Many people are fond of quoting Walter Landor’s dictum that “a brand is a promise”, but a brand name doesn’t have what it takes to make that promise explicit. To the extent that a name communicates, it does so indirectly and incompletely.

A name is also set apart by its durability. In a prototypical communication scenario, a message has served its purpose as soon as it gets some information across to its recipient(s). Think of a headline or a telegram. That’s really not how names work at all. A name isn’t a one-off message, but a verbal object that’s intended for repeated use.

For these reasons, the concept of communication doesn’t provide all the right mental tools for thinking about names and naming. In many ways it’s better to think of names from the perspective of design, which focuses on function, usability, and esthetics.

When you create a name, you’re designing an abstract object for people to use.

They will read it, hear it, store it in memory, use it to retrieve information and feelings about your brand, speak it, build sentences around it, write it, type it, text it, google it. These are use cases, and you can measure a name’s success by asking how it helps to make them easy and enjoyable.

Thinking of names in terms of verbal design will make you focus on tangible properties like sound and spelling. But a design perspective is useful for thinking about meaning as well, because meaning is part of the user experience. Consider the oft-made-fun-of name Calpis, for a Japanese soft drink. The problem with the name is not really about communication. People know there’s no cow piss in that container. The problem is esthetic. It’s just not pleasant to be reminded of urine when you’re drinking something that even vaguely resembles it.

We should think of names as verbal tools and design them to be easy and fun to use as well as functional. Naming is verbal design.


The letter Z has a magical quality. OK, that might be going a little overboard. Let’s just say Z is a bit of a novelty in the Latin alphabet, a relative latecomer that was originally used only in words borrowed from Greek.

People just love Z, with its dynamic zig-zag and zippy sound. That’s why you can take a perfectly ordinary word, replace its first letter with Z, and zap! you’ve got a company name. The Name Inspector first noticed this as an actual trend when he encountered the food website named Zomato. This is unmistakably the word tomato with the initial T replaced by a Z. And there’s absolutely no reason for this gratuitous substitution aside from the fact that Z is awesome.

Now The Name Inspector is noticing more names like this. Of course, you’ve got the occasional Z-for-S substitution that you find in names likes Zite, Zervant, Zolvers, and Zycamore. But that has a phonetic basis: Z is just S with vibrating vocal folds. The Name Inspector is talking about more random uses of Z. Like Zirtual. And Zazzle. And Zattoo.

It’s possible that this naming technique has been influenced by the name Zillow. But the thing about Zillow is that it could be from pillow or willow or, perhaps, neither of those words. There’s definitely a hint of another word, but you can’t put your finger on it.

There are also really cool names that start with Z but do not come from a single word. Like, say, Zulily, just to take an arbitrary example.

The Name Inspector is thinking specifically of the random replacement of an initial letter with Z. As in Zicaso. And Zuman. And Zilliant. (The Name Inspector is assuming this comes from the word brilliant. So in this case it’s not the initial letter that’s replaced but more precisely *adjusts glasses geekily* the initial onset.) And Zankyou.

As letters go, Z just has a certain style. Everybody wants a piece of Z.

This is a Sunburn.

The Name Inspector is not a food writer like his friend Molly Watson. But he does like to eat and drink. And his favorite thing to drink lately is a concoction he came up with all by himself.

This drink has only two ingredients (three if you include ice) and The Name Inspector is almost certainly not even the first person to combine them. But he did come up with the combination independently, driven by a thirsty curiosity, and most importantly and topically, he came up with just the right name for the result.

This is the Sunburn. It consists of about two fingers of Campari in the bottom of a pint glass, plus some ice, topped by a bottle of beer. The Name Inspector likes to use a good IPA, because the hoppy bitterness combines surprisingly well with the bitter Campari.

Sounds kind of weird, right? Beer and Campari? But the thing is, the malt in the beer adds a warmth that Campari, which is all bitter and sweet, lacks. It’s also weird to combine beer and ice, but Campari really likes ice, so this works. If you like beer and you like Campari, try it.

And now about the name. First, this is a refreshing drink that you might enjoy while sitting in the sun. Also, Campari comes from sunny Italy, and the hops in IPA often come from the Cascade mountain range in the Pacific Northwest. Take a typical PNW resident, accustomed to very little sunlight in the winter months, and put them in a sunny place, and the result is sunburn. Plus, the drink has the color of a bad sunburn.

Just try it. If you like it, let others know about it.



This is a bona fide Seattle pot shop (with a food truck out front, obvi). It has real budtenders inside.


Two recent neologisms based on the word bartender will be bandied about in Seattle this weekend, and The Name Inspector believes that comparing them might yield some interesting insights.

The new words are budtender and biketender.

A budtender is someone who works in a marijuana store or medical marijuana dispensary, helping people select the right kind of marijuana for them. The Name Inspector happens to live in one of the four U.S. states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and Seattle now has actual pot shops, such as Uncle Ike’s, pictured above.

Seattle therefore has real live budtenders. And this weekend, it will have biketenders as well. As The Name Inspector read in GeekWire, Uber is running a promotional stunt that will have mixologists riding around town on old-fashioned bicycles (inspired by French tri-porteurs) delivering freshly mixed cocktails. These bicycling bartenders will be the so-called “biketenders” in question.

The words budtender and biketender, though similar, work differently from a linguistic point of view.

The analogy between budtender and bartender is clear. Marijuana, like alcohol, is an intoxicant, and it’s natural to put people who legally dispense either one into the same category. Perhaps more to the point from The Name Inspector’s perspective, the words bartender and budtender have the same internal logic: a bartender tends to a bar, and a budtender tends to buds.

A biketender, on the other hand, is not someone who tends bikes, but someone who tends bar on a bike. That makes the word biketender a different kind of neologism in which the -tender ending is playing a different role: it stands in for the whole word bartender and the specific idea it represents rather than carrying along the more general meaning of the verb tend. Budtender reflects a true analogy, while biketender is more like a blend–though it doesn’t look like one, because it can be analyzed into distinct parts that both seem to have meaning.

The Name Inspector finds budtender to be a far more satisfying coinage than biketender, precisely because it doesn’t require us to rejigger our understanding of tender. The general lesson here for all neologists (including namers) is the following: if a new word is made out of discrete meaningful parts, it’s best to preserve the meanings of those parts.

From a namer’s point of view, a name has to work in two ways. First, it has to be smartly conceived and well designed linguistically. If it is, it’s likely to achieve what it needs to and be liked by people. Second, it has to meet the client’s expectations and standards. Sometimes those are more idiosyncratic.

One thing The Name Inspector asks new clients to do is list some names they like. The names don’t even have to be related to their business.

This exercise can reveal expectations and standards the client might not even be aware of. For example, a client might, as The Name Inspector believes he has mentioned before, list a bunch of real-word names like Apple, Amazon, and Twitter as favorites, but then claim to be looking for a made-up name.

Armed with the information provided by a list of favorites, The Name Inspector is prepared to either roll up his sleeves and get to work, confident that he can come up with a name that works both of the ways it needs to, or to have a conversation with the client about how their preferences might not align with their stated goals or with what’s realistic.

Why is The Name Inspector telling you this? Because if you decide to name your own company or product, you have to be your own client and your own consultant. That is, you the client must decide what you want, but you the consultant must ensure that what you want is realistic and put it into action. Since the biases and preferences of the two yous will tend to be uncannily similar, it’s especially important to have a way to step back and evaluate.

So ask yourself to make a list of favorite names, and then analyze that list to find out what it reveals about your expectations and preferences. Then use that information to help you find a name. But…

…and this is a crucial but: Don’t pick one name from your favorites and copy it. Don’t pick the name Facebook and then make a name ending in book. Don’t pick Spotify and then create yet another name to add to the 300+ names that make “creative” use of the suffix -ify.

One reason copycat names don’t work, aside from the fact that they’re unoriginal, is because you might copy the wrong thing about a name. If you don’t really know what you like about something, you can’t reliably copy it to make something else you like.

When you have a list of favorites, you have a basis for generalization and it’s up to you to find a pattern. Maybe you really love blends, or one-syllable names, or compounds. Then, fine, go for one of those types of names. But make sure you come up with something original in its particulars, or at least not obviously derivative.

The make-a-list-of-favorites technique isn’t just for naming, of course. It’s for any type of  design. The purpose is not to copy, but to have your design principles and goals anchored in specific judgments rather than vague generalities.

It’s possible you won’t see a pattern in your list of favorites. But if you do, it will help you the consultant make you the client happy.

The University of Washington is one of those grand, beautiful flagship public universities and a driving force in Seattle’s hopping economy. The Name Inspector has loved the UW ever since he moved to Seattle, and not only because he happens to be married to a brilliant and beautiful history professor who works there. Heck, his kids even learned to ride their bikes on Red Square.

But now The Name Inspector will have a more official connection to the Huskies. He is delighted to announce that he has accepted an offer to become a Professor of Practice in the UW’s Department of Communication!

But wait! That doesn’t mean he won’t be The Name Inspector any more. That’s one of the great things about this new gig. It’s a half-time appointment, and during the other half of his time, The Name Inspector will keep being The Name Inspector (that’s the “practice” part). He’ll keep accepting naming clients (but will have to be even more selective about which projects he works on) and he’ll even try to step up the posting activity on this blog, to set a good example for the youngsters (though his professorial alter ego will no doubt have his own web presence).

You might not even know what a Professor of Practice is. Don’t feel bad, because everyone seems to be figuring that out. It’s a new job title at the UW (and many other institutions) that’s modeled on positions in professional schools for practitioners who teach professional skills. Clinical Professor in a medical school is one example. So, not only can The Name Inspector keep being The Name Inspector, but he was in fact hired partly for being The Name Inspector! (The PhD in linguistics didn’t hurt either.) And he seems to have the honor of being the very first Professor of Practice in the Social Sciences Division at the UW.

What this all means is that The Name Inspector gets to spend some time on the almost ridiculously beautiful UW campus teaching about language in branding, social media, and popular discourse. There will certainly by some discussion of microstyle. If The Name Inspector were a cat, this would be like a field of catnip. Since he’s now a Dawg, I guess it should be like a big bone, but somehow that doesn’t sound as nice.

Go Huskies!

Founders, you can come up with a good name for your startup on your own. You may be surprised to hear this from The Name Inspector, who is, after all, a naming consultant.

So why should anyone hire a naming consultant? Like so many business decisions, it’s a matter of using resources efficiently.

Naming takes much more time than most people anticipate. A typical email to The Name Inspector begins something like this:


Could you please tell me about how you work and what you charge? My partner and I have been trying to come up with a name for three months, but every idea we like seems to be unavailable, and we still haven’t chosen a name. Now our lack of a name is holding up other tasks, like getting a logo designed.

Naming is a process. If you don’t have experience with that process, you’ll be learning as you go, and it can take much more time than you realize. That time might be better spent on other things, like finishing your product, pitching to investors, or polishing your marketing plan.

Experienced naming consultants (such as The Name Inspector) know how to go through the naming process very efficiently, and how to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t think of yourself. They can make the difference between finding a good name slowly and finding a great name quickly. (Well, relatively quickly.)

So the question is: Can you afford the time it takes to come up with a name yourself? You might find that it’s more expensive not to hire a naming consultant than it is to hire one.

The Name Inspector has been reflecting on last year’s startup names while sipping on what’s left of the apple peel bourbon he made for the holidays. He’s got to say, it seems like some of these companies were named by people who sipped lots of bourbon. Here are some weird names of startups in CrunchBase that were founded in 2014.

Surprising associations

We begin with Rotten WiFi. Rotten is not a word you expect to find in a company name. This one makes more sense when you learn that the company mission is to enable people to evaluate wifi hotspots. But still.

Then there’s the Australian startup Forking About. Does that sound in Australian English as bad as The Name Inspector thinks it sounds in American English? And what about the UK tool for identifying and promoting talented individuals called AssessUp? Let’s hope that one doesn’t go arse up.

Lest we get too cocky, we have our share of crazy names on our side of the Atlantic (and the Pacific) as well. Entangled Ventures, a San Francisco “Education Technology Studio”, brings to mind hopelessly complicated and unwanted connections.  Anonymess, a messaging app based in Malibu, picks the wrong way to abbreviate message. iSlumped, a Silicon Valley startup, allows you to “express your failures socially”. California, man.

The Name Inspector cuts more slack for names from countries where they speak other languages. Maybe at home the names have great associations, but here they don’t translate so well. The Turkish app Whese let’s you see what your friends are doing, but might leave hypochondriacs struggling for breath. And the Indian ebook platform Spayee might have your female pets running for the hills.

Crazy phrases

Names that are funny word combinations always capture The Name Inspector’s attention, even (or maybe especially) when they’re quite descriptive. For example: Sweaty Equity, Giraffe Friend, Tooth Diary, Wealthy Gorilla, and Pet Jellyfish. That last company sells pet jellyfish.

Alien language

No survey of name weirdness would be complete without names that seem to be spoken by extraterrestrials with inscrutable vocal tracts. “Zurff flynx zairge sqwiz xwerks synthorx phizzbo, humans!”

Magical incantations

Oblico Stockbo Recommendo DrinkSendo!

Did you get your bourbon?

Dumb spelling

Some names look like they were spelled by Pippi Longstocking (who might be described as an intuitive speller): Naytev, Reconiz, Buxoff, GozAround, Skemaz, and Naborly all fall squarely into that category.

Some names bring on a severe case of vowel overload: KeeeWeee, Priime, Bluurp, Huudle, Blizuu, Phiinom, Jooicer, Schooold, Braandi.

With other names, it’s all about the consonants: Stepsss, Nurss, Streammer, PHHHOTO.

Funky grammar

The Name Inspector takes a special interest in names that funkify grammar. Audienced turns a noun into a past participle. Bright Simply seems to modify an adverb with an adjective. Aroundish takes a suffix that normally goes on adjectives (warmish) or nouns (bookish) and puts it on a preposition (or maybe a particle), where no suffix has any business being.

Strained blends and wordplay

That brings us to The Name Inspector’s favorite kind of least favorite name, the infelicitous blend. Not all these blends are examples of awkwordplay in the (ahem) technical sense, but they all really clunk: Houseterant (house + restaurant), Searchperience (search + experience), Songvice (song + advice), Chaptures (chapters + captures), Simpolfy (simplify + pol(itics)), Simplitial (simplicity + ??), ClickGanic (click + organic), Emjoyment (employment + enjoyment), and, perhaps in the so-bad-it’s-good category, NamastHey (namaste + hey).

And now the bourbon is gone and our tour of last year’s startup naming weirdness must come to an end. Let’s all try to keep our wits about us in 2015, shall we?

The Name Inspector might seem a tad obsessed with company names that end with the -ify suffix (like Spotify). Last year he released a chart showing the crazy growth of this naming fad. And now here he is with another chart!

But bear with him. The indulgence of this obsession has allowed The Name Inspector to hone some analytical tools that will be very useful, both for doing research into naming trends (this study in namificationology being just the first example), and for adding astounding analytical depth to the strategic thinking that goes into client projects.

The Name Inspector’s interest in namification began with an anecdotal observation: What’s up with all these -ify names? Then it grew into a labored but haphazard search. Now it has matured into a systematic exploration of CrunchBase using their API and some Ruby scripts.

The payoff from the added rigor has been enormous. First, this chart has 338 names on it, while the last one only had 187. (Incidentally, when he released the last chart The Name Inspector wondered if the -ify fad might have peaked in 2012. As you can see from the new chart, it most certainly did not.)

Second and more important, The Name Inspector is now able to do a similar study of any naming pattern that can be found with a regular expression query. So if you’re considering a name for your startup but want to know how it fits into (or stands out from) the world of startup naming trends, The Name Inspector can tell you. For real.

Much of the impetus for the creation of these tools has come from The Name Inspector’s need to prepare for his joint presentation with Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) on naming trends at the American Name Society meeting in January. Once again, academic research yields practical results!

The Name Inspector is pleased to report that the Turkish translation of Microstyle has been published by BZD Yayincilik! It actually happened a while ago but only recently came to his attention. So now there are Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Turkish editions out there. A Brazilian edition is supposed to be in the works, but still no word on that.

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