The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating and rewarding story on the world of naming products, a world that flourishes on both linguistic wizardry and boardroom boredom. It’s a quite phenomenal.
This industry is broken down mostly as it relates to naming tech products, the main protagonist of the story being a nameless item that sounds quite a lot like the Oculus Rift. (But is it?? You have to read the whole thing to find out.) A key figure in naming the protagonist is Oakland’s Anthony Shore, a linguist turned typesetter turned graphic designer turned advertiser turned namer. He seems to be a pretty cool dude.
While potentially a boring subplot from a film like The Social Network, much of the story is not actually about words. But, when it does get into linguistic density, it really is a treasure that writers will greatly benefit from.
For example: this bit about linguistics professor Will Leben.
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.’”
This is invaluable advice for any writer: stop and think about your words. This isn’t a call to overanalyze or get too precious with wording but to think a little more. What is in that name? What is in that word? Is it the most efficient, effective, and powerful option? Say it aloud: does it do the trick? Chew on this when you have a blockade caused by the search for a missing word.
To aid you in this conquest, some help not mentioned in the story: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. This is one of my favorite word finders as it helps to breakdown words, giving you options for synonyms and then deep diving into simplistic words, pulling into many directions and many taxonomies. It helps you choose the right word and includes weighted commentary from renowned authors like Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and more.
Don’t let your word search begin and end online or on your Mac’s Thesaurus widget. You’re doing yourself a disservice. Dig into it, making the finding of a word a process instead of an obligation. Imagine it is a product and you have to find the perfect match for it in word form. (And that may or may not be “oculus.”)