Seattle Interactive Conference

Originally published Oct 6, 2011

Come meet this cute, colorful little owl at the very first Seattle Interactive Conference next month! Actually, The Name Inspector isn’t sure the owl will be there. But the conference is sure to be colorful anyway.

Seattle Interactive is about the sweet spot where “technology, creativity, and emergent trends” intersect. That means entrepreneurs will be chatting with UX designers, and advertising creatives will be rubbing shoulders with crack Ruby coders. Interactive indeed! You’ve heard of SXSW? Well, this is like a nascent NXNW, but with no homicidal crop duster.

There are some really great speakers lined up. You’re probably thinking, “Who? Who?” Why, The Name Inspector himself is one of them, and there will be many others on stage that you’ll no doubt find even more interesting, such as Jeff Barr, Vanessa Fox, and  Sir Mix-A-Lot!

If you want to attend this conference (and you probably do) The Name Inspector can get you a deal. A really great deal, actually: $150 off the price of registration. Since the reg fee is only $350 to begin with, that makes this exciting inaugural event practically free. 200 smackers, to be specific. Just register using the code SICSPEAKER2011.

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The name Kindle Fire: Hot or not?

Originally published Sep 29, 2011

At first glance, Kindle Fire seems like a pretty good name. It uses a thematically coherent naming strategy, similar to the one that Apple used when it named the Macintosh, presumably inspired by the apple variety McIntosh. What’s more, the word fire, like the word apple, is simple and familiar, and has lots of metaphorical significance and emotional oomph.

But the name Kindle Fire doesn’t work the way the name Apple Macintosh did. The name Macintosh applied part of the taxonomy of apples, in a witty analogy, to the world of Apple products: just as a McIntosh is a type of apple, a Macintosh was a type of Apple. The name Kindle Fire is different. While the words are thematically related, there isn’t a taxonomic relation between them.

The relation that does exist between the words kindle and fire makes the name Kindle Fire unsatisfying.

First, it’s redundant. The concept of fire is implicit in the concept of kindling. The word fire, being so generic, doesn’t add any information.

Second, Kindle Fire is metaphorically incoherent. The metaphor behind the name Kindle suggests that the device is something that kindles, or starts, fire. The fire itself could be the flame of knowledge, or burning curiosity, or something else interesting like that. Successful branding of the device could reflect those interpretations and the broader emotional and cultural significance of fire.

But giving a Kindle device the name Fire short-circuits the coherent and appropriate metaphorical interpretations, forcing us to apply the word fire to the device itself, and that doesn’t make sense. It can’t kindle and be fire at the same time.

For those reasons, the name Kindle Fire doesn’t burn as brightly as it should.

(This post also appears on GeekWire.)

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Six letters, but at what price?

Originally published Sep 26, 2011

The Name Inspector was going to write a post about Qwikster, the terrible new name that Netflix has given to the movie-by-mail arm of its business. But really, what is there to say that Fritinancy hasn’t already said?

So The Name Inspector has turned to a lesser-known tacky misspelled name, Egnyte, which belongs to a Silicon Alley “Cloud File Server” startup. This is a name with a very clear rationale: based on the word ignite, easy to pronounce, short (it meets the persistent six-letters-max expectation for domain names), and available or acquirable as a .com domain name. The E-for-I substitution works phonetically here, as it does in the name Enertia, because there’s little if any distinction between the two vowels when they occur in an unemphasized syllable.

That’s all fine. Yet, this name is just so unappealing.

The Name Inspector is not opposed in principle to creative spelling. But there are better and worse ways to do it. Creative spelling should have a little subtlety and/or flair. It should be almost unnoticeable, as in the name Flickr, or it should be motivated by wordplay, as in the name Automattic, or it should be efficient and phonetically apt, as in the name Pipl (which is almost how the word people is spelled in the International Phonetic Alphabet), or it should be odd in a way that’s cute or comical, as in the name DiggEgnyte comes closest to falling into the last camp, because it’s odd, but it lacks humor. Somehow individual vowel substitutions just aren’t funny. Unless they involve umlauts.

The Name Inspector doesn’t presume to know exactly how the people at Egnyte
came up with their name. But he suspects they used this common technique: pick a real word and keep respelling it until you find an available domain name. That’s one of the least imaginative ways to do it.

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Unsocial: Not what you think it is

Originally published Aug 3, 2011

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

-Lewis Carroll

Do you spend too much time on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+? Well take heart, because there’s a new app called Unsocial, which might be just what you need to wean yourself from your social networking addiction. Except it’s not. It’s actually a social networking app.

The Name Inspector was quite surprised to learn about this name, and wondered what would lead someone to think it up for an app that helps you meet people. After all, a person who is “unsocial” is someone who doesn’t want to be around other people. Isn’t this a bit like calling your paper towels Mess? Or your encryption software Expose? Yes, it is.

The tagline for Unsocial is “It’s not who you know. It’s who you need to know.” This location-based app helps you meet people who match your specified criteria when you’re hanging out in a hotel lobby, airport, or some other public space. So in a way it’s not merely about being social–it’s about being downright extroverted.

Re-purposing the word unsocial to name this app is just wishful thinking. It doesn’t say “go beyond social”. It says “I’d rather just stay in my hotel room and watch HBO”.

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Get the Kindle version of The Name Inspector’s book!

Originally published Jul 18, 2011

The Name Inspector is excited to announce that the Kindle version of his book, Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, is available for purchase and immediate delivery on He’s a little torn, though. On the one hand he’d like to heartily encourage everyone with a Kindle to buy his book now. On the other hand, he doesn’t want anyone to be deprived of the cool hardcover, which is lovely to look at everywhere. The interior design is elegant, the dust jacket is strikingly bold yet subtle and witty, and the cover itself, if you take the jacket off, holds a surprise! But you have to wait a whole week for that. Here’s an idea: order the Kindle version for immediate gratification, and the hardcover to keep and admire.

Not sure if Microstyle is for you? Well, of course it is! But in case you need convincing, here’s what the author had to say over on about who should read it:

Business people: Microstyle will help you name your company or product, create a tagline or slogan, write better web and ad copy, and use Twitter and other social media platforms to grab people’s attention.

Language lovers: Microstyle describes what’s happening with our language right now. Robert Swartwood, writer and editor of Hint Fiction, calls it ”a must-read for anyone who cares anything for the English language“.

Science and tech geeksMicrostyle is a work of popular linguistics. Author Christopher Johnson isn’t your typical branding consultant. He got a PhD in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, was a professor at the University of Chicago, and has worked as a natural language processing software developer at AT&T Labs and elsewhere.

Design fans: (You probably want to order the hardcover, because the book design is so cool.) Microstyle is about verbal design. Short, attention-getting, memorable messages have much in common with graphic design, and work together with it in logos, ads, posters, comics, and other works. The author grew up with graphic design, because his dad’s a retired commercial artist who designed, among other things, cereal boxes for General Mills.

Convincing, no? The Name Inspector almost wishes he hadn’t written this book, so he could enjoy buying and reading it.

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Two out of three critics are raving about Microstyle!

Originally published Jul 7, 2011

The Name Inspector hopes you know by now that he has written a book. It’s called Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, and it’s coming out on July 25th (a week earlier for the Nook and Kindle versions). A few people who got advance copies of the book have published reviews, and they’ve said some pretty nice things. It’s enough to make The Name Inspector blush! And then brag.

Let’s start with Robert Swartwood, a writer and the editor of Hint Fiction. He wrote the following review of Microstyle on Goodreads: “This is a must-read for anyone who cares anything for the English language”. Wow, that’s a lot of people. The Name Inspector hopes they all actually do read it. (He hopes they buy it first.) Robert also wrote, “Social network users and fans of Mad Men will especially appreciate it. And, of course, people who like hint fiction.” (Nice job getting a plug in for your own book, Robert!)

Then there’s Donna Seaman’s extremely perceptive and unassailably true review in Booklist (behind a paywall, but you can sign up for a free trial). She called Microstyle “cogent, interesting, and genuinely useful”. She also called it “sophisticated, richly referenced, and example-filled” and “distinctive, instructive, enjoyable, and inspiring”. That’s enough delightful adjectives to last The Name Inspector the rest of the year!

And of course there’s the very first review, which appeared in Library Journal. Maggie Knapp wrote, “For a book on writing short, this is surprisingly long”. Hmmm. OK, fair enough. The Name Inspector likes to think that Microstyle has a good cost-to-information ratio. He could go on about writing little all day!

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The power of metaphor in branding

Originally published Jun 30, 2011

Language is the most efficient tool your business can use to get attention and build a brand. It gives your business a human voice, and costs almost nothing to reproduce and share. In fact, it costs nothing at all when other people spread your message for you, using only their voices or their fingers and keyboards.

Language is for expressing ideas. You can’t get the language right until you get the ideas right. When you’re pitching, naming, and selling, the ideas you start with have to go beyond just identifying the unique benefits you provide. They have to present a vision that will make those benefits clear and meaningful to others.

To develop a vision like that, you need to put your company, product, or service into a compelling human context. It’s a matter of what some people, such as linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, call framing.

Metaphor is one of the most powerful tools for framing. Metaphor allows people to project their basic knowledge of the world imaginatively to understand unfamiliar and abstract things. It’s especially important if you offer a product or service that’s innovative or hard to explain.

Some metaphors are more useful than others. The success of a metaphor depends on how apt it is and on the richness of the conceptual world it opens up.

Here’s an example from ancient internet history showing two different attempts to make a new technology accessible through metaphor. The first popular web browser was called Mosaic, and its successor was called Netscape Navigator. Those names used two different metaphors to convey something about what a web browser–a new kind of software at the time–was all about.

Mosaic likened the web, and perhaps the individual web page, to a familiar kind of picture made out of little pieces.

Netscape Navigator treated the web as a vast physical space to explore.

While the metaphor behind Mosaic has already been forgotten, the one behind Netscape Navigator has proved indispensable. It is, of course, the metaphor we all use now to think and talk about the web. It gives meaning to the names of two other currently popular browsers, Internet Explorer and Safari.

The contrast between these metaphors illustrates two important things to keep in mind about metaphor in general.

First, a metaphor that invites you to imagine you’re participating in an activity is better than one that makes a static comparison. Mosaic treated the web experience as a still picture. All the name really conveyed was that you would look at a complex whole composed of numerous parts. It suggested no imagined activity, purpose, or emotional engagement. Netscape Navigator, on the other hand, hinted at all these things. It suggested that the user was moving, in control, possibly headed somewhere important, and definitely in for an adventure.

The second important lesson is that it’s hard to come up with a new metaphor that’s as powerful as one that already exists. The metaphor of the internet as a physical space was established before Netscape Navigator came on the scene. People already used William Gibson’s term cyberspace to refer to the internet, and used the phrase “surf the internet”. That way of thinking and talking about the internet was, in fact, based on a metaphor that’s deeply engrained in our culture and our minds, and that may be universal: one that treats any purposeful activity as movement through a landscape. Metaphors like this run deep because they’re rooted in experiences that begin in early childhood. (Incidentally, before The Name Inspector was The Name Inspector, he was something of an expert on this topic.)

When you’re coming up with a company or product name, or a tagline, or a pitch, or copy for your website, it pays to think hard about how your message will tap into the conceptual lives of the people you’re trying to reach. What’s important to them? And how will they use metaphor to think about you? That’s partly, but not entirely, up to you.

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What was Mrs. McCave thinking? Now we know.

Originally published Jun 27, 2011

A note from The Name Inspector: This is a sneak preview from What Was I Thinking?,  a new memoir by Delores Delicious McCave, the author, wife, and mother whose twenty-three sons have put her in the spotlight and inspired the sympathy and incredulity of millions. These excerpts from her diary, which appear in her memoir, give us unprecedented insight into her unusual decision to name all of her sons Dave.

Bodkin Van Horn

Has a solid Dutch feel, lightened by the cute sound of Bodkin. But is it too similar to the Wibbits’s son’s name, Popkin von Pickle? And what exactly is a bodkin?


Like the rhyme and all those Os. Double Google magic! But it just sounds like something you’d shout when you’re playing foosball. I think Dave might still be the name to beat.


Short and distinctive. I like it. But the final m gets blended with the M in McCave. Dave McCave works better (and has the rhyme).


Another rhyming name, but more meaningful than Hoos-Foos. Problem: A little braggy, and might make people think of body shots–kind of inappropriate for a child. Dave definitely safer.

Sunny Jim

Simple and optimistic. Problem: Isn’t it a brand of beef jerky? Check this, stick with Dave if necessary.


Has a badass urban feel that I like, but it’s actually an ancient name! And it goes well with McCave. I kind of want to, but  do I have the guts?


When he came out he was just all blinky! I think it’s cute, and the e in there makes it more subtle. Will only work if he stays blinky, though.


When this little guy cried for the first time, it sounded like he had a cold! But I don’t want people to think stuffy as in uptight.


Kind of an inside joke about the whole meconium incident. I’m beginning to see now that the “seven dwarves” naming strategy isn’t really working. Leaning toward more traditional names like Dave.


Drove past a miniature golf course and got the idea that this might make a good baby name! Ask the girlfriends what they think.

Moon Face

Even though this is descriptive like Blinkey, Stuffy, and Stinkey, it’s way more poetic. Does it suggest mooning around, though? I DON’T want a sad name.

Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face

Kind of crazy, I know, but it has great rhythm, and it honors Grandpa Balloon Face. Might be too long (and too Irish, if that’s possible!) with McCave.


Heard this name and thought it was cute. Saw the comic strip, though, and got a little creeped out by the man-baby.

Soggy Muff

Dave Sr. and I think it will be funny to tell everyone we’re seriously considering this name, just to see their reactions. We tried to come up with the worst name we could without actually using dirty words. (We’ve already decided to go with Dave.)

Buffalo Bill

We like the idea of naming him after a historical figure. Presidents’ names are too cliched, though. Buffalo Bill was a famous cowboy, I think, but I don’t know anything else about him–check Wikipedia.

Biffalo Buff

We really liked the sound of Buffalo Bill last time around, but don’t want the “buffalo killer” association, so we’ve played around with it a little. Might still be too close.


I was thinking about the seven dwarves again and started playing around with their names, changing letters and stuff. I kind of like this–distinctive but still vaguely familiar sounding. Could be taken as a blend of “sneaky” and “creepy,” though.

Weepy Weed

The alliteration and the image seemed sort of emo and poetic at first, but seeing this in print makes me realize it’s just way too sad.

Paris Garters

Kind of edgy, especially for a boy. Maybe too edgy.

Harris Tweed

Sounds really classic, especially with McCave. Not sure who Harris Tweed was, though.

Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt

We were bummed when we found out Harris Tweed is actually a kind of cloth. Trying again for a classic sound. I like just Sir Michael Carmichael, but Dave Sr. thinks we should “jazz it up” with Zutt, the name of his first startup. I think that makes it too long with McCave, though. And the Sir part might be a little pretentious.

Oliver Boliver Butt

I asked Dave Sr. to be in charge of names this time, and this is what he came up with. You can’t give a kid a name with “butt” in it! I’m beginning to think he just wants to go with Dave again.

Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate

This is definitely that last time we’re doing this, because Dave Sr. has promised to get the vasectomy, but we’re all named out. So we decided to crowdsource. We asked for suggestions, had people vote, and combined the top three. I just don’t see having McFate right before McCave, though. At this point I think we’ll just stick with Dave.

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Zulily #4 on new Seattle Startup Index

Originally published Jun 20, 2011

The Seattle Startup Index is Seattle 2.0′s regular ranking of Seattle startups based on web traffic. The newest ranking is out, and The Name Inspector is delighted to see Zulily, a former client, at #4, just behind Cheezburger NetworkBuddyTV, and Feedjit. Zulily has been burning up the track lately–just last month John Cook wrote at GeekWire about the company’s new office space and “insane growth curve“. Go Zulily go!

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Hard truths of naming: Face them now and save time

Originally published Jun 15, 2011

Naming isn’t all soft, fuzzy language stuff. Mind you, The Name Inspector loves the soft, fuzzy language stuff. It’s his job to love it. But he realizes that businesspeople often have more practical considerations on their minds, as they should. So here are some hard practical truths about naming that The Name Inspector often shares with his clients, and that he discussed recently while speaking at a TechCafe Happy Hour and serving as a Mentor at the Founder Institute.

Before you start trying to come up with a name, you have to get real. Recognize your true goals and fully acknowledge your practical constraints. That will save you time down the road. Get started by answering these questions honestly.

What does the name have to do?

First you have to decide what the name is going to do for you. Does it have to communicate clearly and directly, or serve as the basis for a brand? These are really the two main possibilities. A name has to communicate clearly, for example, if you’re hoping it will turn up in results for generic web searches like “sandwiches in seattle”. (But remember, it doesn’t have to be your name that captures search traffic like that.) If you want a name that will help people remember you and think good thoughts about you, then you want a brandable name. Brandable names almost always communicate indirectly. More on that in a future soft, fuzzy, language-y post.

Do you need a .com domain for this name?

If it’s a company or service that exists primarily as a website, you probably want a brandable domain name, and a short, memorable .com domain will lend you the most credibility. Still, you can get creative and use a different domain extension until you make it big (or get funded) and can afford to acquire the .com.

If you’re naming one of several products or services, you can probably get by with different pages on your main company site.

Are you prepared to spend serious money on a domain name?

If not, then you have to rule out using a single correctly spelled real word. A name like Amazon or Gist is out of the question, because all the real words that are even semi-common have been registered, and the ones that are for sale have asking prices in the thousands.

Is it important for you to choose your name within a couple weeks or so?

If so, buying a domain is not the way to go, unless you find one that you can buy immediately for a specific price. Otherwise, contacting the owner of a domain and negotiating a sale takes too long.

Do your criteria for choosing a name match your goals and constraints?

Too often people use vague criteria for choosing a name, like “It has to jump out and grab me” or “It just has to feel right”. Of course, it’s great for a name to grab you and feel right, but these vague criteria often mask implicit, unrealistic ones that will never be met, and can doom a naming effort to endless stagnation. Occasionally The Name Inspector has a client who is willing to spend no more than $500 or so on a domain name, but who wants a name “like” Twitter or Apple, and not one that’s just “squished together words”. Big red flag. What such a client really wants is a cool English word available as a .com domain (see above) that everyone else has somehow overlooked. Such names might be available for pennies on If not, it’s time to take a hard second look at goals and success criteria and make sure they’re consistent with practical constraints.

OK, now that you’ve faced these hard truths, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get naming! Of course, you don’t have to do it alone.

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