The Internet Movie Database, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, recently acquired a film distribution company called Withoutabox. Amazon.com has a digital movie download service called Unbox. These names just make too cute a pair for The Name Inspector to ignore, and bring up some grammatical issues that he expects will delight and amuse you. OK, he hopes they won’t bore you to desperate tears. Please bear with him.
Let’s start with the basics. In The Name Inspector’s typology of names, Withoutabox is a phrase name. A prepositional phrase, more specifically. Without is the preposition, and a box is a noun phrase that serves as its object.
To think about the meanings of a phrase name, you need to consider not only the meanings of the words in the phrase and how they go together, but also the ways that the phrase as a whole might be used in a sentence. This is especially true of prepositional phrases, because the main function of a preposition is to make it clear how its noun phrase object fits into a larger context.
Semantically speaking, the function of without is to indicate absence–in this case, of a box. Grammatically, without can connect that absence-of-a-box meaning to a larger context in two main ways: as an adverbial (a modifier of a verb or verb phrase), or as a postnominal modifier (a modifier of a noun that occurs after the noun). An example of the adverbial use of without a box is “Distribute your movies without a box”, where it modifies the distributing. An example of the postnominal modifier use is “This is a movie without a box”, where it modifies the movie.
In this context the two interpretations amount to more or less the same thing. As the website states, “Withoutabox declares all members of the film community to be free from restrictive distribution channels”. One aspect of this freedom is the fact that members do not have to put a film or tape or disc into a box and load it on a truck in order to get it in front of viewers. So the name Withoutabox works mainly through metonymy: it focuses on a small, literally descriptive detail–the idea or image of a movie that’s not in a box–and uses it to stand for a much larger scenario–a distribution system that’s not constrained by physical distance and scarcity.
Withoutabox has a hint of metaphorical meaning, too. The name is reminiscent of the phrase outside the box, that tired cliché that many of us–especially business types–drag out when we want to encourage innovative thinking. (Nothing is deeper inside the box than the phrase outside the box.)
The Name Inspector doesn’t know for certain how this cliché got started. There’s the obvious use of a centrality metaphor for normalcy, with normal being in the middle, as in middle of the road, and abnormal being out there, marginal, edgy, on the fringes, etc. There’s also a related containment metaphor, in which being inside the container is conforming to group behavior, and being outside is being different. But The Name Inspector read somewhere that the phrase think outside the box actually relates to an old brain teaser involving a square made out of nine dots drawn on a piece of paper. The idea is that you’re supposed to draw lines through all the dots by making only four lines and not lifting your pen from the paper.
Remember, think outside the box!
Though Withoutabox is kind of a long name, it has a fast, familiar pronunciation, similar to that expression of confident certainty without a doubt, that’s encouraged by the spaceless orthography.
The name Unbox is deceptively simple. It seems to be shorter version of Withoutabox, providing a straightforward description of one aspect of downloadable movies in order to highlight the benefits of digital distribution.
But wait a minute. The prefix un- usually attaches to a verb (undo, unwind, etc.) or an adjective (unkind, unacceptable, etc.) to make a syntactically similar word with the opposite meaning. The most natural way to interpret Unbox is as a verb meaning ‘to take out of a box’ (comparable to the verb uncage ‘to take or let out of a cage’).
A verb prefixed with un- usually denotes the reversal of the action denoted by the unprefixed verb. You can wrap something and unwrap it, tie something and untie it, and so forth. So the verbs that un- attaches to denote actions with results that can be reversed.
In this context, however, unbox is being used, at least on the most literal level, in reference to something that has never been in a box–namely, a downloadable digital movie. So the name Unbox is less direct than it first appears: it evokes an imaginary scenario of taking something out of a box in order to emphasize the absence of a box and all that implies. If the name were Unboxed, this wouldn’t be the case. The past participle unboxed can simply describe something that you might expect to be in a box but isn’t. With adjectives and past participles (that is, adjectives made out of verbs), un- basically means ‘not’ (uncool, undisclosed, unanticipated, etc.). Something can be unguarded even though you can’t unguard it. But Unbox requires us to imagine an act of unboxing. We might think of this name as more of a philosophical exhortation than a physical description. Free yourself from the tyranny of the box!
So even the meaning of an unassuming name like Unbox requires you to use your imagination a little bit.