Naming stories: Waggle Labs and Pathable

Originally published Apr 26, 2007

Shelly Farnham and Peter Brown are the co-founders of Waggle Labs, a Seattle software and consulting company that specializes in social technology. Their new product, Pathable, lets participants in social events tag themselves with their interests and personal connections to find other similar participants. Shelly and Peter were kind enough to share a story about how they came up with these names. Here’s what they wrote (in the third person) about Waggle Labs:

Their goal was to have a name that reflected on the one side their creativity and sense of fun, and on the other side their extensive advanced prototyping and social science backgrounds. They brainstormed through a number of names with their friend Leo sitting in front of a whiteboard that had words like “social, innovative, fun, creative, smart, technology, internet, web” written on it.

Shelly and Peter had both been through the process of naming projects a number of times before, and had each developed a trust in their instinctive response to names (that “blink” reaction as described by Malcom Gladwell — he argues that through rapid cognitions we often reach instant conclusions that are “really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good”). [link] The goal was to brainstorm through and develop a name they both instinctively liked. They both read a lot of science fiction, so one of the final contenders was General Galactic. Peter loved it, Shelly less so.

“It sounds like General Electric.” She recalls saying.

“But that’s great!” said Peter. “We can leverage residual name recognition.”

“Mmmm. But, General Electric! It is a very masculine name, brings to mind heavy machinery.”

Shelly was a part of an informal art group called Hive-Mind, referring to the emergent intelligence of collective organisms. [Link to Jordan’s bee blog: ] For her, bees and hives had a strong association with the power of the collective intelligence of the Internet. “What about something to with the Waggle Dance?” She thought the word waggle evoked a sense of lighthearted fun and the Waggle dance is a really amazing phenomenon:

From wikipedia:

Waggle dance is a term used in beekeeping and ethology for a particular figure-eight dance of the honeybee. By performing this dance, successful foragers can share with their hive mates information about the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar or pollen, or both, and to water sources.

Through innovative social technology they hoped to enhance people’s social experiences, providing direction to the online honey, so to speak. So Waggle Labs seemed like a great fit. After their brainstorming session they took a day to run both names by their friends: “What do you think, General Galactic or Waggle Labs?”. After twenty four hours of mulling over the issue, they decided to go with Waggle Labs. Much later, a few people pointed out the similarity between Waggle Labs and Google Labs — to which Shelly would shrug and smile and say “well I guess we can leverage residual name recognition.”

Despite the similarity to Google Labs, The Name Inspector is happy that Shelly and Peter decided to go with Waggle Labs. The great thing about this name is that it sounds really playful but has a serious and deeply interesting scientific association. The bee waggle dance is a fascinating case of animal communication that’s gotten a good deal of academic attention. The Name Inspector even had reason to learn about it during his linguistic training. Linguists like the waggle dance both because it shows how complex animal communication can be, and because it’s quite unlike human language, so it helps to show what makes the latter special. Among other things, human language has what Charles Hockett called duality of patterning–one system that defines discrete building blocks of sound (phonology), and a separate one that uses those building blocks to define meaningful units (lexicon) and their combinations (morphosyntax). That’s what allows us humans to have a such a big vocabulary and a limitless repertoire of messages. But The Name Inspector digresses.

Here’s what Shelly and Peter wrote about Pathable:

One of their projects is Pathable (still under development), an event-based social networking tool that explores the use of lightweight profiles with social tagging for matchmaking. They agreed upon the name with that same mutual, instinctive response. Shelly originally wanted to go with SpiderTap. The spider in the web is another metaphor for online social interactions that Shelly always liked. “You tap the strands you’ve spread through the web, see where there’s a wiggle, and move in that direction.” Peter did not like spiders however. They then thought through a few more names around the metaphor of finding the shortest path between two points. “Pathable!” simply leapt into Peter’s brain. He immediately went online, saw that it was available as a domain name, and said “that’s the one”. It seems like an expensive domain name and yet cost them only $8. Shelly agreed it was a good name, recognizing most people disliked spiders, and that their instinctive, negative reactions were not easily overcome. She also thought Pathable had somehow a more business-y ring to it, which fit the target group of the project.

Pathable sounds like a real word but is not, so they got to create their own definition:

pathable (păthə-bəl, päthə-bəl) adj.

To supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity to discover the hidden courses upon which things move.

The Name Inspector also likes the name Pathable. It’s a strange but lovable beast. While it does have an oddly natural ring to it, it has a notable peculiarity. Do you see it?

Pathable is strange because the suffix -able normally attaches to verbs (readableuseablebelievable, etc.), and path is a noun. In the name Pathable we interpret path as a verb because the suffix forces us to. This is a type of what linguists call coercion, which of course is just a fancy scientific way of saying the same thing. The coercion of path into a verbal interpretation gives this name a unique dynamic quality and a hook that really makes it hang on in memory.

What accounts for the natural feel of Pathable, considering that it’s grammatically anomalous? Partly it’s the fact that there are so many words in English that are both verbs and nouns, and many of them regularly occur with the suffix -able (e.g. lovablenotabledebatable, etc.). This might make people subconsciously get used to seeing nouns followed by -able, even though they know these words are supposed to be functioning as verbs in this context.

The Name Inspector would like to congratulate Shelly and Peter, wish them luck with their venture, and thank them for giving him an excuse to talk about geeky linguistic stuff.

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