What’s in a Name?

Twelve months after 9/11, a Turkish couple living in Cologne tried to name their new-born son Osama bin Laden. Officials turned down their request, saying that this name would not be accepted in their home country either. Although the U.S. would probably also have banned the name Osama bin Laden for reasons of national security, America is much more lax about naming babies. Frank Zappa had no problem getting three of his children named Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva — although there was some difficulty getting permission for one son to be named Dweezil. Will Smith and Jason Lee named their sons Willard III and Pilot Inspektor.

Fortunately, most parents give serious thought to children’s names, with social acceptance being a key consideration. Boys in particular are often given traditional names to avoid the so-called ‘playground effect’. According to Matthew Hahn of Duke University, North Carolina, ‘Boys with unusual names are going to be teased mercilessly.’

One should also be careful with initials. When I was at school my friends and I derived infantile pleasure from leaving messages for teachers to call back a certain telephone number (in this case, that of the London Zoo) and to ask for Mr C. Lion, or Mrs G. Raffe, or Miss L. E. Fant. Still other dangers await foreign names spoken in English. No Asian boy deserves the name Phuk in an English-speaking school, for example.

While the naming of babies usually follows conservative rules, that of successful new products or services requires a different logic. Advertising needs to stand out on the playground to be noticed, and sometimes even be laughed at. Think of our first reaction to names like Yahoo, Google, iPod, Red Bull, BlackBerry or Apple when we first heard them.

It has always been hard to sell French wine in the US, but one particular brand is bucking the trend. Its name is Fat Bastard Chardonnay. Of course, creative wording has its risks, especially internationally where a word can have different meanings in different countries. Clairol’s “Mist Stick” should have been checked before its launch in Germany, same as Norma’s rucksack “Body Bag” (Leichensack) before its introduction into the U.S.

In the launching of new products, projects, or even ideas, wise naming can make all the difference. The trick is to choose something that is original, easy to remember, easy to read, easy to say, and at the same time free of cultural misunderstandings. Some years ago, a Japanese company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha made the decision to become more international and to re-name their child. They changed their name to… Sony.

Paul Smith

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