How to misspell a word

Originally published Mar 7, 2011

Don’t be misled by the title of this post: The Name Inspector has not started outsourcing his content to Demand Media. He simply felt that he had to find a way to acknowledge National Grammar Day, founded to promote good grammar and observed just this past Friday. But given his misgivings about pop prescriptivism and the monopoly it has on the public’s linguistic imagination, he couldn’t simply celebrate National Grammar Day. (And that’s not because he doesn’t love grammar. No one loves grammar more than The Name Inspector does.) So, as a response to National Grammar Day, respectfully postponed until after the fact, here’s a topic about breaking the rules: how to misspell a word.

Misspelling–let’s call it “creative” spelling to put a less negative spin on it–is a mainstay of consumer brand names from Cheez Whiz to Flickr. Doing it right requires careful attention to microstyle.

An important principle of microstyle, and one that applies to spelling, is expressive economy. That means getting the most meaning out of the least message.  Applied to spelling, expressive economy means not using more letters than you have to. If you’re going to misspell a word, you might as well make it more compact, right? Typically, yes. Cheez Whiz and Flickr both do well with expressive economy, and they’re quite memorable. Names that don’t observe the principle, like Brandtology(are we supposed to pronounce that t?) and  Bountii, often look clunky and confusing. Perhaps more importantly, since the extra letters aren’t motivated by the pronunciation, it’s hard to recover the spelling from the sound, and that makes the spelling much harder to remember.

It is possible to add letters to a word in a cute way. The name Digg comes to mind: the double “gg” on the end can’t help but remind you of the adorable word egg. And that tells us something important about extra letters: when they work, there’s usually a reason for them to be there, however subtle. Automattic is a good name for a company started by a guy named Matt, for example.

Some names push expressive economy to the limit, eliminating letters that can’t be unambiguously recovered. The defunct url-shortening service, for example, should probably be pronounced like the word burst, which sort of turns the r into a vowel. But can we be certain it’s not based on the word breast? And how about gdgt, for a tech review site. It’s based on the word gadget, but outside a tech context it might be hard to see that.

Balance also plays an important role in creative spelling. Correct spelling has plenty of redundancy in it. If you simplify spelling in some parts of a word while leaving other parts noticeably redundant, the result seems like a job half done. Take Clikthrough, for example. Since they’ve gone to the trouble of simplifying click to clik, why not streamline the cumbersome word through, which uses seven letters to express three sounds? Clikthru would be much better. Maybe the owner of the parked domain wouldn’t part with it, at least not for a reasonable price.

So, in the wake National Grammar Day, when we’re supposed to remember to do things right, let’s also remember that there’s a right way to do things wrong.

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