Monday, November 21, 2005

Bad Names

I read the other day about a woman in San Francisco who makes an extravagant living "branding" businesses and products with memorable names that move the merchandise. She specializes in replacing "bad names" that drive customers away.

She recently branded a popular soy milk product. A simple matter of blending the words soy and milk to get Silk. The new name suggests the texture of the liquid too, a professional complexity she made sure to point out during the interview. That name change doubled the sales of that product and made her some serious scratch.

What's in a name? Plenty, apparently, in a market economy. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it won't necessarily make a buck.

I guess that's no surprise since names have played a pretty significant role for quite awhile.

Our early ancestors thought that names contained something of the essence of a person or a nation. They thought if you knew the name of somebody you understood them and had a kind of power over them. And they thought a new name might signify a new kind of power and identity or even a rebirth.

In one of my favorite biblical passages the Old Testament patriarch Jacob wrestles with an angel of God all night long. Jacob won't let go until God blesses him. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip but eventually realizes that Jacob is too determined to be denied. So the angel asks Jacob his name. Jacob makes his tag known and then the angel says, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed." In the view of the writers of Genesis, Jacob's new name, Israel, was a critical part of his new identity and power.

Jesus meets a man possessed by demons in some of the gospel accounts. The demoniac is a pretty scary guy who tears chains to pieces and rips his own flesh and howls at the moon.

But rather than cutting his food stamps in order to increase his sense of responsibility or shooting him with an M-16, Jesus wants to know the suffering man's name.

The guy groans the name "Legion" because he's under the power of a whole army of evil spirits. Jesus casts the spirits out of the man and sends them into a herd of swine. A whole lot of the other white meat (patented trade name)then rushes down a hill and drowns in the Sea of Galilee.

Names are obviously important.

Even now we still seem to believe that corporate names should capture the essence of a company or a product.

I'm not sure that's true with individual names. Some parents name their kids with meanings in mind but most just want to please grandpa or create a pleasant sound that will give the little ones a chance to succeed. Individual names are mostly lifetime soundtracks now and a test of good taste and class consciousness.

I've always been particularly fascinated with bad names and why people dislike 'em.

Some names are "bad" because they have such dark connotations.

Few of us in the next century will ever run across a successful guy at work named "Bob Hitler." Not many local pastors or teachers will get by with the first names of "Lucifer" or "Cain" either.

On the other hand, there's a pretty good pro hockey player named Satan. First name Miroslav. He's from the Czech Republic where they implicate the Prince of Darkness with another sound.

Slap Shot Satan's bad name works in his favor since it makes such good headlines in the sports sections around the country. "Satan Torches Chicago" or "Satan Dooms San Jose" definitely gets your attention over the morning cup of coffee.

Satan (number 81 for those without a program) Levels Philadelphia

Clearly, a perfectly acceptable name in one culture can turn into a bad name in another.

When I finished college I had a chance to live in London for about 3 months and for part of that time I crashed at the apartment of a Scottish friend named Ian McGregor. Ian laughed out loud every time I mentioned one of my American friends named Randy.

Turns out that for the British "randy" is the equivalent of the American word "horny." Parents in London would no more name their son "Randy" than an American family would name their boy "Lusty." English Randolphs reliably remain Randolphs to deflect the heavy-breathing connotations.

My son Andrew is studying world geography right now. He cracked up when he found out there was a country in the Horn of Africa called "Djibouti" and pronounced "ja-booty." He now refers to that unfortunate country as "Shake Ja-Booty" and I'm guessing he'll think of it that way and giggle every time he comes across that name for the rest of his life. That probably kills the diplomat-in-East Africa career option.

Other "bad" names are weak cuz they're no longer in fashion. How often do you run across a "Hazel" or an "Ethyl?" Most folks associate those names with a frumpy dustbowl housewife in a smock, though I've noticed that some new Asian immigrants to the US use these kinds of old-timey names for their girls in a way more experienced citizens never would. I still can't get used to meeting the "Ethyl Nguyen's" of this world.

Sometimes "bad" names are the result of differences about "good taste."

Let's face it, how many people outside the Latino community can easily get with the idea of a used car dealer named Jesus?

Similarly, I've always thought that universities and colleges take themselves too seriously with magisterial names like "The Johns Hopkins University," and the "The Massachussetts Institute of Technology."

Why don't some schools have names like "Al's College?" More than a few of us would probably like to tell a corporate headhunter that we graduated from a place with a name like that, but you know the bad taste meter would go off the scale if we did.

Finally, seems that some names are "bad" because nobody can remember 'em and keep 'em straight.

A number of years ago I gave the non-profit organization I work for the name "Servant Partners." I've been regretting it ever since because people garble that name at least as often as they get it right.

Here are some actual samples of the kinds of creative renderings I hear on a regular basis:

Servant Partner-- Some people can't get it into their heads that there are more than one of us working for SP...

Service Parts--We're your auto parts experts...

Service Department--We're your trusty maintenance crew...

Servile Partners--Groveling doormats united to serve you...

Sentient Partners--Conscious, thinking vertebrates that are aware of you...

Shepherd's Parents--Nurturing unreached goat and yak herders everywhere...

Those are just a few of the ways people mess up our corporate name.
You know, come to think of it, I may just get in touch with that woman from San Francisco....


Blogger Asher Hunter said...

I know that brand names affect me too. Hence my refusal to purchase another tin of "Ass Cheese".

4:14 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

You must be shopping at higher end markets than I am

11:09 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

I think being called sentient could actually be quite a compliment, no?

There was a listing in the Moscow phone book for Divine Savior. Listed in the S section: Savior, Divine.

Maybe an aspiring hockey player?

8:04 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I guess so. Always good to be considered a vertebrate with a take. But that's not exactly the interpretation we were looking for with that title.

Parity in pro sports keeps the tickets moving and the turnstiles spinning. Satan versus Savior. A pretty good marketing concept if you ask me.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

for some reason a lot of people always call northwest neighbors "northwest", and it doesn't seem they are trying to shorten it, its as if they think thats the actual name of the organization, like the we're the airline company or something. one of our board members still calls it that and it still bugs me =).

my word verification: zzhab

1:02 AM  
Anonymous John Teter said...


Great call on Satan the hockey player. I had heard of him before, but not in the headlines yet. I wonder if anyone has invited him to church in a while.

Keep up the great blogging.

11:36 PM  

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