Creating a Strong Empty Vessel Name: Thoughts on Empty Vessel Names, Part Two

By Jed Rendleman

April 3, 2015

A couple weeks ago, we explored the idea that no name, no matter how abstract, can be truly void of meaning. And this week we’re continuing our exploration of the meaningful empty vessel name. We’ve even got solid insights from two experienced namers and linguists.

A few months ago, much to the excitement of the naming world, an article was published by Neal Gabler in The New York Times Magazine called “The Weird Science of Naming New Products.” Although several key players in the naming industry were interviewed, including our own Principal and Creative Director Maria Cypher, the article mainly followed namer Anthony Shore through the process of creating a name for a new virtual reality device.

After trying the VR prototype, Shore established that he wanted the name to communicate instantaneous travel to another dimension. But instead of focusing on words with meanings that suggested this idea, he was more interested in what instantaneous travel sounds like. “He knew that speed could be conveyed by what linguists call fricatives, which are consonants produced by forcing air through the narrow channel between tongue and front teeth or tongue and upper palate or tongue and molars: f, s, v, z. And he knew that the point of arrival could be conveyed by stops or plosives, which are consonants in which the air flow is blocked: b, d, p, t. The exercise produced names like Slide or Slyde.”


Gabler elaborates on this fascinating discussion of sound symbolism (the perception of meaning from a particular sound) citing several studies, including one that showed that the perception of meaning from sound symbolism was consistent across languages. But sweeping generalizations about language bother Senior Strategist & Linguist at Catchword, Laurel Sutton. “My feelings are generally that when people talk about sound symbolism,” Sutton says, “they wildly overgeneralize. So, a statement like ‘fricatives indicate speed/smoothness’ is true, but only in the context of ‘many European languages as spoken in the 20th-21st century’. There’s nothing innate about it, and it’s certainly not true for every language everywhere.” So, if we can’t depend solely on sounds to communicate meaning in an empty vessel name, how can we make a robust one?

“Creating ‘empty vessel’ names intended to convey meaning,” Sutton adds, “is usually a matter of selecting pleasing sounds that have some built-in association and modeling the name on existing word forms to evoke a meaning.” She gives Zoosk, the name of a dating service, as an example. The word zoo gives the idea of looking at a lot of profiles, like animals at the zoo, which is a slightly unsettling thought. Nevertheless, “the ‘z’ sound,” she says, “makes it sound fast and easy; and the “sk” at the end evokes a bit of “task”, like getting things done.” At the end of the day, I think that Sutton and Shore would agree that semantic meanings are essential to a strong name, and that sound symbolism is just one of many avenues they might explore on a naming project, for an empty vessel or otherwise. If you’re interested in exploring sound symbolism more, there are several online resources worth checking out.

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