All creatures great and small: The complex beauty of naming living things

In any natural history of the human species the invention of language would stand out as the preeminent trait.

It is impossible to imagine life without it. Language enables us to communicate, to facilitate learning, to plan, to develop a “theory of mind” and the tools of thought.

So tightly is it woven into the human experience that it’s scarcely given a second thought. We open our mouths and speak. We open a book and read.

We use it with such natural, innate ease it’s not hard to overlook the fact that language is a completely artificial construct consisting of sounds and symbols that we process effortlessly. Words, being the linguistic objects they are, are proxies for the things they represent. They are increasing in number exponentially and stored in the vast lexicon of the human experience. In that lexicon, names have a special role.

We name things to create order and make sense of our world and everything in it – to understand something as itself and also its relation to other things. We name countries, states, cities, street, mountains, rivers, planets, craters on the moon, distant stars, pets, boats. And we name all living things.

The classification of living things is one of the more arcane and scholarly branches of naming. It is one of the most overlooked, and one of the most beautiful.


According to Jessica Leigh Hester in her truly fascinating article in Atlas Obscura, The beautiful complexity of naming every living thing, scientists go about naming much in the same way any other namer would, regardless of what they are naming. In fact, her article would serve as an excellent primer for any namer.

Like all namers, scientists have their own jargon and naming protocols. In their world they use “binomial nomenclature”, a naming system based on two words. Blatella germanica, for instance, is a cockroach; Homo sapiens are, as you know, humans.

It wasn’t always so neat and tidy. In 1758 a Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, was putting the finishing touches to the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, his encyclopedic work of taxonomy, when his attention fell on the European honeybee, known at the time in scientific circles as abdomine fusco, pedibus. Accurately descriptive as it goes – it means “furry bee, grayish thorax – it was a bit of a mouthful

Renaming the honeybee

He decided a more practical approach to naming was needed – the binomial nomenclature. The honeybee was renamed apis mellifera (honey bearing bee), a name it still goes by today in entymological circles.

The scientist’s approach to naming is reassuringly structured, as you would expect. But then Ms. Hester concludes her article with a quotation which must go down as one of the most lyrical and transcendent testaments ever made to a namer’s art. It is taken from German biologist Michael Ohl’s book, The Art of Naming. He writes:

“Part of the majesty and magic of a name is how it gives the reader or listener a firm, solid foundation from which to transport herself to a place she’s never been. Names nudge open portals to new parts of the world or the long-receded past as though they were secret incantations…mental images of prehistoric landscapes take shape at the sound of their names, and we feel we are among the initiated, the entrusted, the knowing.”

The beauty of language and the art and science of naming captured in a single paragraph.



DuPont misfires with Chemours

I. E. du Pont de Nemours and Company. This impressively aristocratic name is better known as plain DuPont, the world’s fourth largest chemical company.

Founded in July 1802 as a gundowder mill by one Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, it supplied the Union Army in the Civil War and went on to specialize in the poylmers that made it famous.

dupont logo

Du Pont was born in Paris in 1771. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was a political economist who had been elevated to the nobility in 1784 by King Louis XVI, allowing him to carry the honorable de Nemours suffix, Nemours being a picturesque ‘commune’ in the Île-de-France region in north-central France.

Little wonder then the company should look fondly on Nemours as the name for the spinoff of its performance chemicals business, embedded as it is in the heritage of the company and the duPont family’s noble French origins.

Nemours was a natural, except that the duPont family had already endowed the name to The Nemours Foundation, a pediatric health system operating in the Delaware Valley and in Florida.

The problem was neatly side-stepped by the creation of Chemours, a sound-alike name that also invokes French place names à la Cherbourg, Chantilly, Chartres, Charmant, Chambery and Chinon.

ChemoursA nice idea, but it’s not at all what DuPont had in mind; it wants to be sure that people know the performance chemicals business is a performance chemicals business and has, therefore, declared Chemours be pronounced ‘Kem-oars’, with a ‘k’ for chemicals and not a ‘schh’ for château.

Sad. My mistake. I got carried away by the romance of it all. I just thought… a company with such a flair for naming its inventions – Vespel, Corian, Teflon, Freon, Mylar, Kevlar, Zemdrain, Nomex, Tyvek, Sorona and Lycra – might have been more inventive with an historic spin-off dedicated to “applying great chemistry to make a colorful, capable, and cleaner world.”

Blaer needs a shot of Tequila

Blaer, which means “light breeze” in Icelandic, sounds a perfectly nice name for a young girl.

The Iceland government takes a different view. Blaer is not on it’s approved list of names for girls on the Personal Names Register. So, as most of the world knows by now, the 15-year-old girl is suing the state for the right to legally use the name given to her by her mother.

We’ve been down this naming path before. It may seem high-handed state interference into private and very personal matters such as an individual’s name, but the baby naming laws are there for what the Icelandic authorities see as good reason: to protect children from naming abuse.

Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and China also have laws designed to shield the innocent from the wilder naming fantasies of their parents.

For example, the Danish authorities have stepped in to block parents trying to name their children, variously, Anus, Pluto and Monkey.

The Swedes have rejected “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111163 (pronounced Albin, naturally).

It was submitted by a child’s parents in protest of the naming law, and was duly dismissed. The parents later submitted “A” (also pronounced Albin) as the child’s name. It, too, was rejected.

Metallica, Superman, Veranda and Elvis have also been rejected. Ikea has been nixed but Lego is OK, for some reason, as is Google for a middle name.

Blaer, or whatever, should at least be grateful for her mother’s good taste, and also draw encouragement from the example Tequila, an 8th grade Swedish girl who triumphed over the system.

The Swedish authorities refused to recognize her name. Her family took the case all the way to the Supreme Administrative Court, which also rejected it.

She took the name Quila instead but was always Tequila to her friends and family.

As she was never baptized as a child, Quila decided to take another shot at getting the Tax Agency, the authority that administers the naming law, to approve her name. She sent her own personal plea explaining how she has grown into the name and that she wanted it to be official before her baptism.

They relented. She is now officially Tequila. The breeze is at your back Blaer. Don’t give up.

Further reading:

Is your name your destiny?

Unlike Jeff Bridges, Tron can’t hide it’s age

As entertainingly spruced up and spiffed out as the digital effects and graphics are in “Tron: Legacy”, the movie is an artifact from the past.

Just as the lines on Jeff Bridges’ face tell us how much time as past since Tron first appeared in 1982, the name also dates it.

Biodigital jazz, man.

Tron belongs to an era that began in the early 1960s. The space race was on and electronics and computers were linked with rocket technology.

In his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Princeton professor Burton G. Malkiel remembers the “tronics boom” of the time when companies thought investors would be attracted to any name reminiscent of electronics and the space age.

Monsell, a New Jersey-based maker of mechanical equipment, changed its name to K-Tron International in 1964 hoping to escape the gravitational pull of its founder’s name. Others followed.

“There were a host of ‘trons’ such as Astron, Dutron, Vulcatron, and Transitron, and a number of ‘onics’ such as Circuitronics, Supronics, Videotronics, and several Electrosonics companies”, writes Malkiel. “Leaving nothing to chance, one group put together the winning combination of Powertron Ultrasonics.”

Tron wouldn’t sound too out of place today in Toy Story as Buzz Lightyear’s younger brother. Technology eras and naming trends come and go. The wireless era had a myriad of companies with cell and tel names. We had the dot coms of the Internet era. And now we have Solexa, Solexant, Soliant, Solaris, Solarmer, Solarwatt, etc. of the solar era.

Two of the most recent and biggest trends in computing – open-source software and cloud computing – have been accompanied by some of the most generic naming conventions ever.

For open source, as Matt Asay points out in CNET News, it has become a requirement to include “source” in the company name – XenSource, MuleSource, SpringSource, SourceSense, Sourcefire, etc.

It's getting cloudy

Already, there’s a telling shift in the market. As open source goes mainstream companies don’t seem to be appending source to their names as much anymore . Instead, it’s cloud-computing companies that are eager to tack a “cloud” badge to their name – Cloudant, Cloudkick, Cloudshore, Cloudswitch, CloudSource. This too shall pass very quickly.

Technology companies are founded by visionary engineers who think it’s all about the technology; it will sell itself, just put it in the name of the company. So we get generations of soundalike names, layered on top of each other like stratified fossils.

Technologies soon become commodities. Yesterday’s breakthrough is today’s standard. Categories are created, and they are dominated by brands, as Apple, Amazon, Verizon, Cisco and Oracle testify.

But see the movie.

Why you can’t call your child Anus, Pluto or Monkey in Denmark

When it comes to naming kids, anything goes here in the United States.

You can burden your offspring with whatever bizarre name catches your fancy (and movie stars usually do).

Other countries are not easy-going. Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and China all have baby-naming laws to protect the innocent. Courtesy of CNN, these are the countries that outlaw bad baby names.

1. Sweden

Enacted in 1982, the Naming law in Sweden was originally created to prevent non-noble families from giving their children noble names, but a few changes to the law have been made since then.

The part of the law referencing first names reads: “First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.”

If you later change your name, you must keep at least one of the names that you were originally given, and you can only change your name once.

Rejected names: “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111163 (pronounced Albin, naturally) was submitted by a child’s parents in protest of the Naming law. It was rejected. The parents later submitted “A” (also pronounced Albin) as the child’s name. It, too, was rejected.

Also rejected: Metallica, Superman, Veranda, Ikea and Elvis.

Accepted names: Google as a middle name, Lego.

2. Germany

In Germany, you must be able to tell the gender of the child by the first name, and the name chosen must not be negatively affect the well being of the child. Also, you can not use last names or the names of objects or products as first names.

Whether or not your chosen name will be accepted is up to the office of vital statistics, the Standesamt, in the area in which the child was born. If the office rejects your proposed baby name, you may appeal the decision. But if you lose, you’ll have to think of a different name. Each time you submit a name you pay a fee, so it can get costly.

When evaluating names, the Standesamt refers to a book which translates to “the international manual of the first names,” and they also consult foreign embassies for assistance with non-German names. Because of the hassle parents have to go through to name their children, many opt for traditional names such as Maximilian, Alexander, Marie and Sophie.

Rejected names: Matti was rejected for a boy because it didn’t indicate gender.

Approved names: Legolas and Nemo were approved for baby boys.

3. New Zealand

New Zealand’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act of 1995 doesn’t allow people to name their children anything that “might cause offence to a reasonable person; or […] is unreasonably long; or without adequate justification, […] is, includes, or resembles, an official title or rank.” Officials at the registrar of births have successfully talked parents out of some more embarrassing names.

Rejected names: Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, Sex Fruit, Satan and Adolf Hitler

Approved names: Benson and Hedges (for a set of twins), Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Violence

4. Japan

In Japan, one given name and one surname are chosen for babies, except for the imperial family, who only receive given names. Except for a few examples, it is obvious which are the given names and which are the surnames, regardless of in what order the names have been given. There are a couple thousand “name kanji” and “commonly used characters” for use in naming babies, and only these official kanji may be used in babies’ given names. The purpose of this is to make sure that all names can be easily read and written by the Japanese. The Japanese also restrict names that might be deemed inappropriate.

Rejected names: Akuma, meaning “devil.”

5. Denmark

Denmark’s very strict Law on Personal Names is in place to protect children from having odd names that suit their parents’ fancy. To do this, parents can choose from a list of 7,000 pre-approved names, some for girls, some for boys.

If you want to name your child something that isn’t on the list, you have to get special permission from your local church, and the name is then reviewed by governmental officials. Creative spellings of more common names are often rejected.

The law states that girls and boys must have names that indicate their gender, you can’t use a last name as a first name and unusual names may be rejected. Of the approximately 1,100 names that are reviewed each year, 15-20 percent of the names are rejected. There are also laws in place to protect rare Danish last names.

Rejected names: Anus, Pluto and Monkey.

Approved names: Benji, Jiminico, Molli and Fee.

6. China

Most new babies in China are now basically required to be named based on the ability of computer scanners to read those names on national identification cards. The government recommends giving children names that are easily readable, and encourages Simplified characters over Traditional Chinese ones.

Parents can technically choose the given name, but numbers and non-Chinese symbols and characters are not allowed.

Also, now, Chinese characters that can not be represented on the computer are not allowed. There are over 70,000 Chinese characters, but only about 13,000 can be represented on the computer. Because this requirement is a new one, some citizens are having their name misrepresented, and some have to change their names to be accurately shown on the identification cards.

Rejected names: “@”: Wang “At” was rejected as a baby name. The parents felt that the @ symbol had the right meaning for them. @ in Chinese is pronounced “ai-ta” which is very similar to a phrase that means “love him.”


Apple’s iPad tablet device is shipping April 3 and already it’s looking like another hit for Steve Jobs…yes, in spite of initial reaction to the name.

I must admit, I am bemused by the continuing name controversy. Admittedly, for women of a certain age it is entirely understandable they would connect the word ‘pad’ to a hygiene product in free association. In context, however, that association would be drastically minimized.

When we speak of launch pads, legal pads, bachelor pads, ink pads or pad locks we know exactly what is being referred to. There are no jokes, snickers or shudders when someone asks for a note pad. In such contextual instances, association of the word ‘pad’ to a feminine hygiene product is not only unlikely, it is perverse.

So it will be with the Apple iPad. It will come to mean the computing platform of the future without anyone blinking an eye (see Walt Mossberg‘s comments in the Wall Street Journal).

In naming, context is everything.

Oddly, the prevailing negative views about the iPad name are coming from men. For some reason have assumed the banner of female disdain and just can’t get beyond the tampon. How their minds work is a matter for them and their psychologists.

After the Apple iPad, stand by for the Dell Streak

If people had problems with the name of Apple’s iPad, they are going to have a high old time with Dell’s entry into the touch screen tablet market.

Engadget has posted two slides from an internal Dell document that purports show color options, sizes and the new name for the tablet referred to as “Streak”.

Streak is troubling for a couple of reasons. By definition, a streak is a line, mark or smear. Apart from the open invitation it offers to toilet humorists, Streak is a hard name to love if it is anything more than a code name. More problematically for Dell, it is yet another ‘brand’ that has to fight for attention alongside OptiPlex, Vostro, n Series, Latitude, Precision, PowerEdge, PowerVault, PowerConnect EqualLogic, Inspiron, Studio, Studio XPS, Alienware and the pretentious Adamo.

For all the issues some people have with the iPad and Apple’s iNaming convention, at least it has a logic that helps you to understand the family of products within an Apple-centric system.

From Pampers to Pontiacs

Where is Dell going? Regrettably, the company seems to be heading down the same P&G-style consumer product branding path that Ron Zarella pursued a few years ago at GM at the behest of his Board mentor, John Smale. A former chairman of Procter & Gamble, Smale hoped to introduce the marketing skills of the packaged-goods business to cars. What worked for Pampers will work for Pontiacs was the logic.

Zarella, president of GM North America, duly obliged and poured marketing money into individual vehicle models at the expense of the core ‘divisional’ brands (Pontiac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac).

No new dawn for Oldsmobile

He even went so far as ‘de-badging’ Oldsmobile cars and promoted models such as the Aurora as brands in their own right, removing all trace of Oldsmobile on the vehicle. The problem was you still had to walk into an Oldsmobile dealership to buy one, an experience not for the faint-hearted. It was sleight-of-hand brand marketing logic devoid of any consumer buying psychology.  An already weak brand was effectively killed by this strategy which provided another expensive lesson in why classic consumer branding techniques cannot be applied willy-nilly across different industries.

Dell should look to its brand laurels. As innovative as its products might be (and I’m not sure they are technically), Dell is not a product marketing company. I don’t think it knows what it is anymore, but this much is certain: Dell needs a strong brand under which it can introduce new products and a nomenclature strategy that supports the brand. Fighting a war of product brands in now obligatory bright colors is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Hands off LaCrosse

Staying north of the border and south of the waistline, there’s news that GM has a new-found confidence in its marketing convictions. It concerns the Buick LaCrosse and the habits of Quebecois teenagers.

LaCrosse is a wildly popular sport in Canada. Sort of like hockey played on grass, it originated with the Native American nations of the United States and Canada, mainly among the Huron and Iroquois tribes.

So LaCrosse would seem to be a wholesome, easy-to-pronounce, action-oriented name for a vehicle. Except that it is apparently slang for masturbation in Quebec. Why the febrile teens of Quebec would refer to it as ‘la crosse’ is anyone’s guess but GM erred on the side of caution when it launched the LaCrosse in 2005. They called it the Allure in Canada.

The new GM seems to have come to its senses over this issue.  It has decided the 2010 model will be called the LaCrosse on both sides of the border.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=lacrosse&iid=5407747″ src=”e/f/2/6/MLL_All_Star_2468.jpg?adImageId=10127861&imageId=5407747″ width=”234″ height=”154″ /]

Keep your hands where I can see them.

“It was in fact our dealers in Quebec who wanted the name changed,” George Saratlic, a GM Canada product communications spokesman, told the Canadian Press. “They saw little down side to using the LaCrosse name in common with the U.S. and recognized the huge upside in terms of the enhanced advertising support that could be derived from the LaCrosse name and creative work done for it in the U.S.”

This is hardly the first time a carmaker has been distracted by an automotive double entendre. The Ford Pinto, the Mitsubishi Pajero, and the Mazda Laputa apparently all mean something unsavoury somewhere in South America.

As Ira Bachrach of NameLab says. “It happens all the time. You sit in a room and there’s always some guy in the back who says that means sexual perversion in Nicaragua.”

“Most companies ignore it or at the very worst they do research to see whether a), it’s generally perceived in the audience they care about and b), whether it’s relevant, whether the audience really cares.”

Which leads us to the legendary Chevy Nova story, the classic cautionary tale of the pitfalls of names in foreign markets. It goes something like this – GM launched the Chevrolet Nova into the Spanish speaking market and it bombed because ‘no va’ translates to ‘it doesn’t go’ in Spanish.

It lives on in countless marketing textbooks. It is repeated in numerous business and branding seminars and is a staple of magazine and newspaper reporters in need of a pithy example of branding folly.

A great anecdote, for sure. Except that the story is not true. Sorry. Blame Snopes.

Time Warner’s naming twavails

When it comes to name changes, the Time Warner organization has had more than its fair share of unfortunate miss-steps.

Time Warner’s misbegotten merger with AOL produced the behemoth ‘AOL Time Warner’ in 2000. It was a fractious marriage and the promised synergies never materialized. When Time Warner executives regained their senses and control of the company they dropped AOL from the corporate name in 2003 before finally ridding itself the business in 2009.

In this case the name was the least of Time Warner’s problems, however humiliating the unraveling may have been.

Its offspring, Time Warner Telecom, has made much heavier weather of its naming challenge.


Continue reading “Time Warner’s naming twavails”

The entrepreuner’s naming trap 2: Lack of due diligence

Financial advisor Sid Blum had been running his own firm, GreenLight Fee Only Advisors, for more than three years when in April he received a threatening legal letter from Greenlight Capital Inc., the hedge fund led by legendary short-seller David Einhorn.

The letter ordered Mr. Blum to stop using the GreenLight name. The hedge fund followed up by filing a lawsuit in May.

Continue reading “The entrepreuner’s naming trap 2: Lack of due diligence”