Amazon.com: The river, not the woman warrior

Originally published Feb 9, 2007

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.comAmazon 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.

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