amazon-phonetic.png

It’s probably safe to say that Amazon (or Amazon.com) has achieved the status of an iconic name.

So, does the word Amazon bear any meaningful relation to the company Amazon.com? Amazon is of course the name of the South American river which is the largest in the world. There were also ancient women warriors, made famous through Greek mythology, that we call Amazons.

It’s unlikely that Amazon.com is intended to be associated with the second meaning. In fact, the company embarrassed itself back in 1999 during a trademark dispute with a feminist bookstore called Amazon Bookstore, which had been using that name since long before the web existed, and sued Amazon.com. According to Salon.com, Amazon.com lawyers questioned one of the bookstore owners in pre-trial depositions about her sexual orientation and the orientations of bookstore employees. Company representatives claimed they were just trying to establish that Amazon Bookstore catered specifically to a lesbian clientele, and that the two companies were therefore in “different businesses” and could both use the name Amazon. Yeah, right.

So it’s the river association they were going after. According to this WIPO arbitration document, about a separate trademark dispute in which Amazon was the complainant,

Mr Bezof [sic] chose the name for the site because the River Amazon in South America is the biggest river in the world and one of the company’s goals was eventually to offer the largest selection of book titles in the world.

A large river serves as a good metaphor for a a huge retail operation like Amazon.com. The comparison implies that Amazon has an endless supply of books (and now other products), just like a river has an endless supply of water. This idea also seems to be played upon by the name Endless.com, which Amazon chose for its new site selling shoes and handbags.

Note that an endless supply can mean either lots of actual physical books (or other items), or lots of titles, as in the indirect Bezos quote above. In the latter case it means endless variety, and is an example of what Chris Anderson calls The Long Tail. Amazon is a prominent case study in his book of that name. In case you’ve somehow managed to avoid discussions of the Long Tail, the idea is that Amazon’s web-based retail model allows them to profitably sell lots and lots of less popular items, items that, on a graph of items listed in descending order of popularity, would be way out on the long tail.

Aside from the image of a long tail/river, the river metaphor also suggests the inevitability of Amazon actually selling things. A river may have an endless supply of water, but so does the ocean (for all intents and purposes). What makes a river special is that the water is always moving in one direction (barring enormous civil engineering projects). When we think of rivers, deep ideas about force dynamics are active in our minds–we imagine the irresistible pull of the water. Such ideas are at work when we talk about the flow of goods (or of ideas). These associations might have been comforting to Amazon’s investors, who were concerned about Amazon moving enough merchandise to become profitable.

The pronunciation and sound of Amazon support the meaning. Because there are no stops and no voiceless sounds, there is continuous vibration of the vocal folds and flow of air when you say the name. The open vowels contribute to this feeling of free movement.

Amazon had to fight to use their name, and sometimes they fought dirty, but the name may have been worth fighting for.

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Amazon.com: The river, not the woman warrior”

  1. on 19 Feb 2007 at 11:40 am Robert Labossiere

    Lately, I’ve taken to referring to Amazon as a place rather than a proper name, e.g., “check out this book in the Amazon”… which has a reference more to the region that the river, could say “on the Amazon” I suppose… I wonder if anyone else has taken this approach.

    Love your blog. Found via querying “advertising criticism”… something I’m interested in and am hoping to focus on in the next few months on my blog Never Never Mind, http://www.klooj.net/never/

  2. on 20 Feb 2007 at 12:32 pm The Name Inspector

    Thanks for your comment, Robert. I look forward to checking out your blog.

    It surprises me that you say “in the Amazon” like that–was it something you consciously decided to do (as a kind of joke), or did you just notice yourself doing it?

  3. on 22 Feb 2007 at 7:58 am Robert Labossiere

    I definitely started consciously (to be clever;) but then I liked how it reminds you that the Amazon is (still) a very real place, with all the resonance that has: distant, exotic, mysterious, vast, dangerous, and a vital part of our world, the lungs they say…

  4. on 28 Feb 2007 at 2:20 pm sagemama

    Love this post- do you have any analysis of the name of Amazon’s newest product, the Amazon Unbox?

  5. on 22 Mar 2007 at 10:44 am The Name Inspector

    sagemama, I hadn’t thought about that name, but now maybe I will.

  6. [...] something in the character that lends to a hidden meaning that resonates deeply to the listener. Amazon the river flows. • It means what is being done — there’s a mission, a promise, and [...]

  7. on 18 Jan 2012 at 6:06 am Cathy Ashley

    Hi, I’m new to your blog so please forgive me if you have covered this issue elsewhere…

    I wondered how much you think Amazon’s success is attributable to their name, and how much it is coincidental – and that because of their success we are now scrutinising their name as if it is more significant than it really is. We are seeing it as iconic, when actually it is random (almost). Isn’t it a bit like when authors write a good story, then schools start to study it in literature classes and impute all sorts of meaning that the author never intended?

    I am trying to resolve my own hangup with not being able to name my evolving business. I want the name to be perfect and iconic and clever and meaningful and sound and look nice (and have an available URL of course) – and I don’t feel I can develop my business until I get there! I’m wondering, if Jeff Bezos knew in advance how successful his business would be, whether he would have waited and thought up a ‘better’ name than Amazon. Or did it HAVE to be called Amazon to as successful as it has?

    Cathy

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply