Naming stories: Tinfinger

Originally published Feb 27, 2007

Paul Montgomery writes about his company’s name:

Tinfinger is intended to be to the Who’s Who what Wikipedia was to the
Encyclopedia Britannica. Its main function is a search engine of
biographical information on famous and semi-famous public figures. It
also has news aggregation features similar to Techmeme, based around
people’s names instead of hyperlink hierarchies.

The name Tinfinger is a portmanteau, of course. Tin is the Vietnamese
word for news, and finger is the name of a Unix command
<http://kb.iu.edu/data/aasp.html> to find out information about a
person. (One of the founders is originally from Vietnam via England, the
other an Aussie.) Tin also has other meanings, especially when used as a
prefix to denote falseness, e.g. “tin god”, referencing the superficial
cult of celebrity. The site’s mascot is a little black robot called Ned
whose backstory is as a put-upon slave to his human masters, so the
site’s name also references the robotic nature of the news aggregation
features which work through the fingers of mythical robot employees.
Finally, the name also recalls the Bond film character Goldfinger,
giving an extra pop culture nuance.

Is it possible to have though too much about a name? :D

This is one of the geekiest and most thought-out startup names that The Name Inspector has come across. The elaborate backstory with the robot workers is pretty entertaining. It’s odd that a search engine focusing on people has a non-human mascot, but it makes a kind of twisted sense.

Something really interesting about this name is that it works on different levels for different audiences. The metonymic (or, more specifically, synechdochic) reference to robots and the allusion to the Bond movie/character are widely accessible to the English-speaking world. Then there are inside jokes for geeks and speakers of Vietnamese. They’re almost like verbal Easter eggs. On this level the name is enigmatic to many people, but they don’t know it. It’s crypto-enigmatic.

The name Tinfinger is self-deprecating almost to the point of being risky. This comes of course from the association the word tin has with cheapness and falseness. If you imagine singing the theme song to the James Bond film Goldfinger saying Tinfinger instead, you can’t help but notice how much self-mocking there is in this name. But if presented with the right humor, this kind of over-the-top modesty can be disarming. The design of the Tinfinger logo hits just the right note with its construction-paper-cutout-style letters and its little cartoon robot. Is it The Name Inspector’s imagination, or are those supposed to be robot and human skin tones in that logo?

In the typology of names, Tinfinger counts as a compound rather than a portmanteau (blend), because it consists of two whole words rather than word parts. The sound is natural and easy, and gets a little poetry from the near-rhyme of the first two syllables. In the orthography this is reflected in the repetition of in, and enhanced by the similarity of the letters T and f.

The name Tinfinger conjures up an entertaining vision that helps us imagine how the underlying search technology works. The Name Inspector can’t wait to see what those robots can do with their tinny little fingers.

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