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Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Beating the Drum for Metaphor

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on January 30, 2013 at 3:00 am

An engaging recent New Yorker article* describes the constructed language Ithkuil, which aims to be “maximally precise” by “eliminating the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that [are] seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

ninjaOur first response was that the creator of this constructed language had likely not seen our recent blog post about connotation vs. denotation in brand names. The post notes that connotation is often more important than denotation in brand names. An example is gazelle. For the many who have never actually seen one of these animals, the literal meaning may be a bit blurry, yet to them the gazelle is still likely to connote swiftness and grace.

Our second reaction to Ithkuil was to ask why, as its creator noted, overall arbitrariness is so widespread in human language. The answer’s pretty easy if we picture what occurs in ordinary conversation: as communicators, we incline more toward verbal artistry than toward explicit programming. We launch plans as if they were rockets, face problems as if they were adversaries, and target opportunities as if–well, no need to flog a metaphorical horse.

Consider what language would be like without metaphor. Rather than launching plans, we’d simply make them, or start them. Metaphor is so intrinsic to the way we use words, it’s even difficult to find literal verbs to substitute for face in “face problems” or target in “target opportunities.” It’s much easier to find other metaphors: attack problems, meet problems head on, embrace change, aim for opportunities

That gives good reason to suppose that even if a precise language–be it Ithkuil or C++–should ever be spoken, it wouldn’t take a day for a ninja band of metaphors to start creeping in.

No wonder, then, that metaphor should be a staple of brand names. Metaphor helps us to see something new in everyday objects. It enables brands like Tide, BlackBerry, and Volt to stand out from the competition by endowing them with a unique, attractive message.

Metaphors do lose their force over time. Our verb reveal goes back to a Latin verb meaning ‘pull back the veil,’ yet that image no longer pops up when we encounter the word. Metaphor weakening explains how we get unwitting blends of metaphor like:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations.

New York Times, June 11, 2001

The images in brand names subside over time as well. While the newcomer Volt immediately brings to mind an electric charge, the BlackBerry, introduced in 1999, now offers models–the Porsche and the Pearl–in colors other than black. Tide, introduced in 1946, hardly conjures the image of waves in the sea anymore.

But in branding, that’s OK, because a brand name’s heaviest lifting happens up front, when the name is new. A colorful name attracts attention, ties a unique message to a product, and is more likely to spread virally (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) when it’s first introduced.

Therefore, for those – like the inventor of Ithkuil – that wish to make language more efficient, we recommend metaphor, which in a single word can turn a caterpillar into a butterfly.

— Will Leben, Chair of Linguistics

* Joshua Foer, “Utopian for Beginners: An Amateur Linguist Loses Control of the Language He Invented.” The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.

The Unbearable Lightness of Meaning

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming, Trademark Research, Trademarks on January 3, 2013 at 3:00 am

When developing a brand name, how important is the meaning of the name? It depends. Sometimes a descriptive or highly suggestive name is appropriate. In those instances, finding a name with the right meaning can be critical to success. However, when establishing a brand that is intended to be a platform for a host of offerings or one that introduces a new idea to the marketplace, a word’s meaning may matter less than its connotations.



Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word; connotation refers to the set of associations a word carries with it. Take the example gazelle. The denotation, or definition, of gazelle is “any of many antelope species in the genus Gazella”; people’s specific associations with the word will vary, but for most it will connote something swift and graceful.

Denotation is accessed via the left-brain, connotation via the right-brain. The difference is important. Just as music has more impact and immediacy than words, so too do the connotations of words in the right-brain have more enduring resonance than the definitions of the left-brain*.

Another example: the word silly meant “holy” hundreds of years ago. Now, it means “foolish.” But these are dictionary meanings. Over time, as contexts changed, the original denotation changed as well. But consider silly and holy: one strong connotation both words share is “innocent.”

While we can’t know with certainty what connotations silly had six hundred years ago, one of them was likely “innocent” and that connotation remains, despite the change in meaning.

But what does this all mean for brand names?

Two things.

First, when considering a brand name candidate, it makes sense to focus more on connotations and less on definitions. The fusion of a brand name to a product or service creates a new context for the word, and in this crucible connotations will stick. Definitions won’t. If you are considering Gazelle as a brand name, it pays to focus less on that particular animal and more on whether you want consumers to associate your product or service with something graceful and swift.

What’s more, sub-parts of words also have enduring connotations. When Lexicon developed Pentium for Intel, our research showed that pent connoted strength and power (think Pentagon), and the -ium ending connoted something scientific. It was a completely made-up word at the time, but it already had inherent connotations that would (and did) resonate in the market.

Second, we are learning more and more that we aren’t as rational as we would like to think and that our decisions are guided as much by our unconscious mind as they are by our rational mind†.

These right-brain connotations have more resonance with the unconscious than literal meanings. It’s a tough exercise: when confronted with a word, we immediately reference its literal meaning. You see it sometimes when a new brand is announced. When the iPad came out, everyone said it sounded like a women’s hygiene product.

Two years later, all that remains is the elegant simplicity of the name.

— Alan Clark, Director of Trademark, and The Lexicon Team

* Richard F. Taflinger, Taking Advantage: Consumer Psychology and Advertising (Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2011)

† University of Rochester. “Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible.” Science Daily, 29 Dec. 2008. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.