A few years later, David Placek, Lexicon’s founder, asked Leben what he thought of a name they had conjured, Triples, for a new cereal from General Mills that contained three different grains. “It sounds like something that’s light and crunchy,” Leben recalls telling them. He says their jaws dropped. Could the sound of a word say as much as its content? The idea of sound symbolism went back to at least Plato’s “Cratylus,” in which he associated sounds with physical characteristics, but linguists tended to discredit it. It had long been a fundamental tenet of linguistics, Leben says, that “the association between the meaning of the word and its pronunciation is an arbitrary one. The reason why we call a piano a piano has nothing to do with the sounds p-i-a-n-o.”
But Placek was intrigued, and he asked Leben to conduct a study to determine whether sounds did indeed convey physical properties. Leben called his study Sounder. He administered a questionnaire to 150 Stanford and Berkeley students, asking them questions like: Which sounds faster, “fip” or “fop”? Leben found a consensus. “Fip” was faster than “fop.” Why? Because of the way the sounds were generated in the mouth, Leben says. “Fip” feels lighter and faster because the vocal tract is open only a small amount. There is less acoustic substance for “fip” than there is for “fop,” the pronunciation of which causes the jaw to drop and the tongue to lower, creating a heavier, more powerful sound. There were many similar discoveries among fricatives and plosives, leading Leben to conclude that “the physical characteristics of sound are what determine associations.” Significantly, Leben got the same results when the study was conducted overseas. Lexicon took the idea and ran with it. “Pentium” began with a plosive that signified energy, power and dynamism. The “S” of the Swiffer mop made it sound fast and easy. The “D” of Dasani water made it sound heavier. Leben says: “It doesn’t say ‘refreshing.’ It says ‘slow down,’ ‘cool off,’ ‘relax.’ ”
Next, Placek asked Leben if he could conduct a study to see if there might be an association between sounds and emotional states. That was Sounder II, conducted in 2002. “The results came out so clean, it was hard to believe,” Leben says. Certain sounds, for example, were associated with daring or liveliness or sadness or insecurity. But Sounder I and II concentrated exclusively on the initial sounds of a word — its first consonant or vowel or both. Sounder III, just concluded last summer, asked whether consonants and vowels in other positions in a word might have a similar or additive effect. They did.
Among the discoveries Leben made: Fricatives convey “faster” and “smaller” — as do vowels that are voiced near the front of the mouth, like the a in “bat” or the i in “hid.” Plosives, or stops, convey “slower” and “bigger” — as do vowels that are voiced at the back of the throat, like the o in “token” or the double o’s in “food.” So-called voiceless stops like k, p, and t are more alive and daring than voiced stops like b, d and g, while the voiceless convey less luxury than the voiced. And all sound-symbolic effects manifest differently depending on context. They take on properties of the product being named.
In his search for just the right sounds, Shore used an app, called Universal Text Combination Generator, to create a list of 7,500 names combining fricatives and stops. Getting some help from computers has become de rigueur among namers, who — perhaps in part to reassure their corporate clients — have devised proprietary and often highly confidential software to assist in the naming process. Some of these programs mash together roots of words to form new words. Some find rhymes. Some focus on speech. One company, Idiom, promotes a system it calls Lingtwistics, which, according to its website, is an algorithm that “deconstructs these naming ingredients, then reassembles them in unexpected ways.” (The name Lingtwistics was itself generated by the algorithm.)
Like most namers, though, Shore doesn’t believe that computers can replace human creativity. For Shore, sound symbolism was only the beginning. He didn’t just want words that sounded right. Shore liked “natural words,” words that carried semantic and even historic meaning.
He kept coming back to the notion that this invention was like something out of science fiction. Looking for inspiration, he watched the movie “Jumper,” which is about teleportation, and began examining a website called the Glossary of Science Fiction Ideas, Technology and Inventions. There were 2,400 entries, and Shore studied them all. Two, however, popped out. One was “Jumpdoor,” which referred to a teleportation device, still Shore’s go-to idea. And the other was “Jaunte Stage,” described as a “little place to teleport,” first used in a 1956 novel, “The Stars My Destination,” by Alfred Bester, which served as inspiration for a Stephen King story titled “The Jaunt.”
This is the point in his search at which Shore sits at his computer and opens window after window, making lists of words and then trying to make connections among the words on those lists and then putting potential candidates for the final name on a master list. It is an act of computerized mind meld, and it goes on for hours every day for days at a time. If the search seems chaotic, that is the point. The idea is to do everything — to leave no word unturned. He visits the website onelook.com, which shows how words work with other words, or sketchengine.co.uk, which combs texts and concordances, flags parts of speech and shows how a specific word appears in billions of words of text. He visits rhymezone.com to find all the words that rhyme with a word. That is how he came up with the name for an ideation application for the Palm Pilot — he began with “brain,” looked for rhyming words and concluded with BrainForest. For this project, he thought of words about travel, but also about entertainment, the sense of engagement, connection, energy, even spheres. And he laid them all out on an Excel spreadsheet — 1,200 names in all by the time he had finished.
For a single project, namers can come up with as many as 6,500 names. Big naming companies will do anywhere from 40 to 50 projects a year, and smaller ones 15 to 20, which adds up to a lot of names. Of course, only one name will be chosen for each project, and that is the only one the client will own. The rest, however, won’t necessarily go to waste. Every naming agency keeps a list of its discards in a computer program. These are then classified by message (at Catchword); by distinctiveness, appeal, memorability and concept (at Interbrand); or by whatever other way the namers might want to retrieve them. Catchword has 650 of these categorized lists. And many of the names will be recycled, which suggests that there is a kind of Platonic ideal of good names, independent of products good or bad — a name so good that it could work, if not on anything, than at least on many things.
Three weeks after he first experienced the results of the new virtual-reality production process, Shore paid a second visit to Menlo Park — this time with 61 names he had culled from his master list of 1,200. Using PowerPoint, he presented the names one by one with an explanation of the meaning of each. And he presented them in what amounted to a narrative, bunching all the names that connoted one characteristic and moving from that characteristic to the next in an arc that he thought had a strong beginning and a boffo ending.
The first name was Virch, for “virtual” reality. Then Amuzium (he thought the “ium” read “elemental”). Then Thrall, which was “emotive” but also had a negative suggestion of surrender. Then Thrillium. Howl. Mezmer. Joyager (the inventors immediately liked that one). Livit. Physic. Tactene. Tether (“tying one to an experience”). Lash. Splicefield. Velop. Engulf (“very direct”). Respace (another favorite). Skylume. Coil (“potential energy”). Midst (“I was interested in repurposing words from another era”). Zyde (from “reside”). Jaunt (“a short journey for pleasure”). Trav. Trave. Translo. Zonic (“sonic but faster”). Popover (“they loved this name”). When he was done, two hours later, Christensen, van Hoff and Annau listed their favorites, compared them and then handed the winners to Shore.
That was the end of Round 1.
Typically there are two rounds in each naming project, though larger clients and tougher jobs may require three or four. With the lists in hand, Shore retreated to his home to generate a revised set of 50 names, now that he knew what sorts of names the inventors seemed to like (Glidesight, Latch, Plasm, Sheen, Splicewire and Telescape, among others).
Getting clients to accept a name is the hardest part of a namer’s job. Shore calls it the brander’s paradox: Having asked for a whole new identity, the client is terrified to accept it. “We’re taxed with doing something different,” Shore says, “yet those are the very things that might be off-putting or scary.” This is one reason namers make a point of discussing the origins of their names; explaining the chain of reasoning behind an unfamiliar word can make it come to sound not just natural but inevitable. Even so, some of the best names wind up in the bin, which is why Paola Norambuena of Interbrand says she makes it a practice never to argue for a name or to fall in love with one. Naming will break your heart.
Then there is the issue of trademarks. Before any company or product name can be registered and legally protected, it must pass an evaluation by the Patent and Trademark Office to determine whether it has already been taken. Almost every naturally occurring word has been claimed, which is why namers so often arrive at portmanteaus (Accenture derives from “accent” and “future”) or drop vowels (Flickr and Tumblr) or change letters (Lyft). “Coming up with a good name is hard,” Margaret Wolfson says. “Coming up with a great name is even harder. Coming up with a name that passes trademark! . . . ” There are roughly two million active trademarks in the United States, and 5,000 new applications are filed with the trademark office each week. At least half do not pass, often because they happen to be merely similar to another name. Shore’s Respace, which the inventors liked, would be deemed too close to a digital-services firm named Redspace, so the name eventually dropped out. A company can try to buy out another company that has a name it covets, but it can get messy. That is why Shore and other namers subject their candidates to a preliminary trademark screening before a client becomes attached to a name it cannot have. And trademarks don’t have to be cleared only in the United States. For companies and products overseas, they have to be cleared in each country.
Vetting names internationally means considering cultural issues as well. Lexicon has 84 linguists around the world who make sure names don’t ruffle local sensitivities. By one account, linguists rejected the drug name Soarus because it sounded like tsouris, Yiddish for “trouble.” Similarly, Wolfson once had to convince a client that a product named Care 4 would not sell in China because the number 4 signifies death. One American company, Good Characters, is devoted entirely to coming up with Chinese names for other American companies wanting to do business in China.
In pharmaceutical naming, the hurdles are, of course, even higher — which has led some pharma namers to abandon semantically grounded names altogether. At ixxéo, a naming firm based in Switzerland, Denis Ezingeard, the managing director, has devised a method that focuses entirely on visual and aural names, on the principle that the less semantic freight a word carries, the better. He says his process draws on jazz, nonrepresentational art, bird-watching and Darwinian evolution. His rationale is that the names don’t mean anything in linguistic terms, which makes it easier for them to pass regulation. Ezingeard may be onto something in a business in which companies are running out of words. The company’s own name, ixxéo, is a product of its method. It looks and sounds right, but it isn’t a real word. It is an impression — something Ezingeard made up.
With the prescreening completed late in August, Shore returned to the inventors’ office for the last time with his 50 final candidates. Once again, he projected the names on a screen in context and explained his reasoning for choosing each. But by this time, Christensen, van Hoff and Annau were seasoned evaluators. “The names were even better,” Christensen says.
After Shore left, they wrote the finalists on a whiteboard on their office wall and began deliberating. The contenders included Popover, FarAcross, Jaunt, Jumpdoor and Lunge. Christensen lobbied hard for Jaunt, which had grown on him because of its science-fiction origins. But one partner thought it was too high-toned, too British-sounding. Jumpdoor was still a favorite, and Respace hadn’t yet fallen out. For days, the partners debated the possibilities, and the weight of the decision was considerable. “It is kind of all or nothing,” Christensen says about their name choice.
What Shore didn’t tell them was that even if the name they chose received a tepid reception, the power of their production process could still overcome it. Most namers will tell you, as Paola Norambuena puts it, that a “great name can’t fix a bad product. A great product can fix a bad name.” Accenture was met with derision for reminding people of dentures. Gap was an empty space. Yelp was a dog in pain. The iPad was confused with a tampon. Now these names have no odd connotations at all, thanks to the success of the things they name.
So it may have been that after hours upon hours of brainstorming and hours more of deliberations and still hours more of trademark searches, and after the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars, not as much was at stake as Christensen, van Hoff and Annau thought — at least not in commercial terms. Personal and emotional stakes were a different story. Christensen says selecting the name was a milestone, though he doesn’t remember exactly how or when they settled on their choice. Shore got the news via an email telling him that they had chosen a name and that it had been granted trademark approval. Now it was theirs.
It would be seven more months before the company was ready to come out to the public. In that time, the inventors moved their operations to Palo Alto. They formed a board of advisers, which included the chairman of Imax. They began making arrangements to record events like the McCartney concert and even make V.R. movies. And then, when they were ready, one afternoon last April, they invited the press to their unveiling. Reporters who entered the office were greeted by a large sign affixed to the wall with the company’s name in a futuristic-looking font. Of course, they had no idea what went into selecting the word on that sign. It simply said: