Awkwordplay: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

Originally published Jan 7, 2009

The word awkwordplay, which The Name Inspector has just coined, demonstrates what it means: awkward wordplay. A play on words can be awkward for different reasons, and awkwordplay shows one of the most common reasons: a mismatch in syllable emphasis. Awkwordplay is a blend based on the phonetic overlap between the last syllable of awkward and the first syllable of wordplay. But the second syllable of awkward isn’t emphasized, while the first syllable of wordplay is. If you pronounce awkwordplay so that awkward is pronounced correctly, then you mess up the pronunciation of wordplay. If you pronounce awkwordplay so that wordplay sounds right, then awkward sounds all wrong. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The word awkwordplay is an especially silly example, and it’s made up. But the problem it demonstrates is found in a subtler form in many actual names. Consider the name Teensurance, for an insurance program for parents with teen drivers. Whenever you have a single-syllable word like teen in a blend, you’re going to want to give it some emphasis, especially when it expresses a distinguishing characteristic of something, as teen does in Teensurance. Yet in this name, teen replaces the first syllable of insurance, which isn’t emphasized. As a result, the name sounds strained. It’s an example of awkwordplay.

A similar example is the name Carticipate, for a mobile application to support ridesharing. Car is an important word in this name and deserves emphasis, but it replaces the unemphasized first syllable of participate.  Again, awkwordplay.

Contrast Teensurance and Carticipate with a well-constructed blend like Farecast, for an airfare forecasting service. The one-syllable word fare takes its rightful place as the emphasized syllable of the name, which preserves the rhythm of forecast as well.

Combine syllable emphasis mismatch with difficult or unpleasant transitions between sounds, and you’ve got a real mess. The name Mapufacture commits only a minor infraction with respect to syllable emphasis, because map replaces a syllable that receives secondary emphasis. But replacing a syllable with main emphasis would be much better. And, while the transition between the first and second syllable of manufacture sounds nice and smooth, when you replace the n with a p, the result sounds pretty bad.

An especially egregious example of awkwordplay is the name Syncplicity, for file synchronization and backup software. Pronouncing this name is not a matter of the utmost syncplicity. Not only is the word sync stripped of its natural emphasis, but there’s also that ugly consonant cluster between the first two syllables. As a result, the structure and sound symbolism of this name work directly against the intended message. The product is supposed to be about combining things simply, but the name combines things incompetently, and with great difficulty.

The lesson here, dear naming public, is that you shouldn’t jump on every coincidental syllable similarity you find to make a play on words. Sure, map sounds a little like the first syllable of manufacturecar rhymes with the first syllable of participateteen shares a final sound with the first syllable of insurance, and sync sounds a bit like the first syllable of simplicity. But you’ve got to consider the overall rhythm and flow of your play on words. That means preserving the patterns of emphasized and unemphasized syllables that you find in the words you start with, and not creating ungainly new sound combinations.

Now go and play nice.

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