Naming for Emphasis: Syllabic Stress and Phonetics in Naming

By Burt Alper

October 29, 2008

To borrow an old gag from Mike Myers, be careful not to put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

When we founded Catchword 10 years ago, we struggled with what we would call our new company. After putting ourselves through the same rigorous naming process we now subject our clients to, we settled on a short list of finalists. One of those names still stands out in my memory: Namesake. It was ultimately rejected because all three of the founders kept jokingly pronouncing it “Nam-eh-SAH-kay” (instead of the desired “NAYM-saik”). It became a running gag.

A few years later, I chuckled when I saw the new name for Palm printed in The New York Times as “palmone”. I couldn’t help but think of it as “palm-OHN-ay” (the company has since changed back to the much more appropriate “Palm, Inc.”). A short while later, I read about Experts Exchange, an online collaboration network, which launched using the domain “expertsexchange.com”. It only takes a moment to misread their domain name as “expert sex change”! Ouch. How does one avoid these awkward and embarrassing mispronunciations or misinterpretations?

The secret lies in understanding the phonetic rules of English. The stress pattern changes with the number of syllables in the word. If the brain misinterprets the number of syllables, it will subsequently misinterpret the appropriate stress pattern. This is made worse when there is confusion about where one word begins and another ends, as in a domain name, when there are no spaces or intercap letters. And once you start reading a word the wrong way, it’s almost impossible to go back to the right way. No one at Catchword can see “namesake” as “someone who has the same name” anymore. Rice wine, anyone?

Since this misinterpretation of stress patterns is unpredictable, the only way to avoid the rice wine branding company is to subject name candidates to a linguistic test. When conducting this test, it is imperative that respondents are not offered any cues for how to pronounce the name.  Remember: when your brand is printed in The New York Times, they don’t include the logo or wordmark. Test the name in all caps, or all lower case (as it would be in a domain name), to gauge the importance of an intercap letter. And always test the name with an equal mix of native English speakers and non-native English speakers to see how accents affect pronunciation and perception.

Of course, and as usual, your friends at Catchword would be happy to help evaluate your brand name, or to come up with a new brand name that doesn’t suffer from this affliction.

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