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Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

How Lucid Motors Got Its Name

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Cars, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming on November 8, 2016 at 8:30 am

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With over 25,000 trademarked brand names in the automotive category in the U.S. alone, developing a name for a new car is a big challenge. “In this case, the client made it easy,” said David Placek, the President of Lexicon Branding, who worked with Silicon Valley-based Atieva to create a new name for the company that is building an intelligent, electric luxury vehicle.

According to David, Lexicon started the program with a presentation from then-Atieva that was truly inspiring. Staking a new claim for America in the luxury vehicle category, the client team wanted to recapture the spirit of innovative engineering in the heart of California. Among these soaring goals for the company and the vehicle, the team set a very unique objective for the name: “We don’t want it to sound like a car.” That request, combined with the fact that the vehicle is far beyond the ordinary, opened up creative possibilities for Lexicon way beyond more traditional automotive projects.

With a mission to “amaze customers through outstanding performance, beauty, space, and intelligence,” Lexicon initiated the creative process. Lexicon’s linguists in China, Germany, France, Mexico, Spain, Canada, and Japan began to gather intelligence on the culture of electric vehicles and existing brands of cars, motorcycles, scooters, and e-bikes in each market. Next, three small creative teams were briefed and deployed against a range of creative goals and targets.

During a review of dozens of potential solutions, one name received the most attention for its meaning, sounds, and surprising grammatical structure. Lucid, a real English word — an adjective, which is peculiar for a car name — that conveys the notion of intelligence and awareness from its meaning as well as smoothness and simplicity from its sounds. “The name does everything we wanted,” said to David Placek, “It certainly does not sound like a car, but gives you a sense of innovation and intelligence which is what Atieva is all about.” For Placek, whose company coined Subaru’s Outback and Forester, Mercedes Metris, Toyota’s Venza and Scion brands, and GM’s OnStar, the name is certainly a standout. “There was certainly an element of risk,” said Placek, who was quick to point out that without a strong client team with a vision and willingness to take the risk that being truly new requires, Lucid Motors would not exist.

Eric Jackson and Nika Wynnyk

For more on Lexicon’s work and process >> www.lexiconbranding.com/our-work

Why Do All Car Logos Look the Same?: How Visual Identity Can Complement Brand Names

In Branding, Cars, Linguistics, Naming on October 20, 2016 at 9:19 am

As an exclusively verbal branding agency, Lexicon usually refrains from commenting on the topic of visual identity. But in some cases, design has an interesting parallel with brand naming: the basic forms used in a brand’s logo can communicate beneath the surface in the same way that the sounds and structure of a brand name can. For example, have you ever noticed most car logos have a round, container-like shape?

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A few exceptions make use of vector, or arrow-like, shapes – the Citroën logo, for example – or animal-based metaphors that project ideas of speed and strength onto the target product (e.g. Peugeot’s lion logo, Jaguar, Aston Martin’s or Bentley’s wings). Some brands even combine all three elements, as is the case with Ferrari and Lamborghini.

The logos of Lexicon-named Scion, Flywheel, and Turo all incorporate the rounded container or vector shapes.

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The pervasive use of container shapes in car brand logos contrasts with its scarce presence in those of other products, such as technology or apparel to give just two examples:

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So, is it just a coincidence? Did all car brand logo designers secretly agree to use this shape? Is it a simplified representation of the car as a container? Did all those designers choose the same basic shape unconsciously? Or can we just chock it up to a trend?

Whether or not this design decision was a conscious one, this subtle, non-verbal aspect of branding has meaning. The “container” is a well-known image schema, which cognitive linguists define as one of the basic building blocks of human cognition, and a powerful tool for creating meaning.

Image schemas are regarded as the basic scaffolding of human cognition. They offer highly abstract representations of spatial relations. It may seem obvious, but the topology of the container image schema includes an inside, an outside, and a boundary between the two:

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Image schemas are also pre-conceptual – rather than being taught about them, we learn them through our own bodily interactions with our surroundings. As infants, we see food outside of us which then enters our body when we are fed – our bodies are containers. Even prior to being born, we experience our mother’s womb as a container.

From these early physical interactions, we build upon and extend the logic of the image schema. For the container, we learn that inside contents are protected from outside conditions. Based on previous experiences of protection in our life (e.g., being inside our mother’s womb, being inside our homes, inside our beds in our bedrooms), we project these feelings of comfort and protection onto other experiences we have of containers.

The way brands are represented can take advantage of the container schema to borrow some of this equity of protection and comfort. For car logos, the use of the container shape subtly highlights essential properties of a quality car: protective, safe, and comfortable, which may extend to ideas of being reliable and dependable.

That brand names have the power to communicate beyond simple semantic meaning underlies most of our work at Lexicon. In addition to the association with various real words, Scion also sounds powerful; Turo sounds like a luxurious service. But brand names can’t communicate it all. A strategically designed logo can use image schemas to effectively complement the name. Scion’s logo helps it communicate power and protection; Turo’s looks luxurious and dependable. By understanding both of these verbal and non-verbal communication strategies, brands can double the effectiveness of their visual identity.

– Lorena Pérez Hernández, A member of Lexicon’s World Brand® Team

When the Language is the Message: Premium Skin Care Products in the Brazilian Market

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Consumer Goods, Linguistics, Naming on July 13, 2016 at 2:58 pm

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People often fall into the trap of thinking that a message’s utility is a simple function of its contents. However, in his now famous aphorism, Marshall McLuhan first asserted that the medium is the message. In other words, the mode of expression used to transmit an idea is a contextual lens through which we interpret and understand the idea, thus influencing our perception. This holds true for the brand naming work we do here at Lexicon Branding, and is key in reaching the most strategic and efficient linguistic form for a given project. This point becomes especially important for products competing in today’s global economy.

In some cases, the medium can actually trump the content of the name, particularly when it comes to the language of expression. I was taken aback when I first noticed that many premium skin care products in Brazilian drugstores are not named in the country’s official language of Portuguese. At first pass this made sense because many of the products in this category are imported. But to my surprise, even country of origin could not account for the names’ language of origin. So where are these names coming from?

To answer this question, I took to the shelves of local drug stores to survey the selection of premium skin care products in Brazil. I found that English forms like Skin, Care and Age appeared in some skin care brand names, but French-sounding ones were much more prevalent, especially if the product had a clear cosmetic use (e.g., Dermage, Avène, Vichy, L’Oréal, L’Occitane). Brands that had a French or French-like name, such as Dermage or Vichy, were generally followed by supporting nomenclature in Portuguese to describe the product’s use. This is in keeping with the traditional notion in Brazil, and many other countries worldwide: that the French are leading cosmetics experts. This is found in the USA as well, where premium American brands include Estée Lauder and Clinique. Across the globe, many people who use these products speak little or no French and are completely unaware that Estée Lauder was an enterprising American business woman in the early 20th century, or that a clinique is a private hospital (hardly where I would look for beautification). It seems these surface level references to French culture are enough to convince plenty of consumers of the brands’ authenticity.

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Indeed, some manufacturers go so far as to hide the names of parent companies if they are not consistent with the desired product image. For instance, German-sounding names like Bayer, Stiefel, Beiersdorf, and Daudt, tend not to feature prominently on packaging. Instead, the parent companies’ names are generally placed inconspicuously on the back of the bottle in fine print. Take, for example, the world-famous NIVEA skin care brand, owned by the German company Beiersdorf. As the company explains, the word NIVEA is derived from the Latin word nix, nivis meaning “snow.” So NIVEA means “snow white.” Thus, its German identity is completely effaced. Likewise, their popular Q10 Plus line of skin care creams give the consumer no hint at all that its original maker is German: Beiersdorf is buried on the back of the packaging in tiny, barely-legible print while the brand NIVEA is center-stage on every surface.

This pattern emerges in other lines and sub-brands as well, where French and English are used to sell anti-wrinkle facial cream. This time, they combine the French word Visage with an English descriptor, Expert Lift, followed by detailed information in Portuguese.

Why is it that the German identity is practically erased? One possibility is Brazilians’ lack of familiarity with the German language itself. More likely, though, it’s the prestige that French carries in Brazil. In the past, the upper classes would often study French, especially the daughters of well-to-do Brazilians; it was considered the language of “civilization,” and as such, it was often used for the branding of sophisticated personal items for women and of stores that sold them. German, on the other hand, has often been associated with heavy industry, precision tools, pharmaceutical products, and musical instruments. It also doesn’t help that Brazilians tend to think of German as sounding a little harsh, partially due to certain consonants produced farther back in the mouth, and the sheer length of the words. These cultural biases, together with the legitimate heritage of French expertise in cosmetics, help to explain the preference for French or French-sounding monikers for premium skin care products in Brazil. It’s the language itself that conjures up these images in the minds of regular consumers, even if they don’t actually speak a word of the language at all.

– Aurora Neiva, A member of Lexicon’s World Brand® Team

Uncanny Similarity

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Consumer Goods, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming on March 4, 2016 at 9:24 am

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Life imitates art. It is a foregone conclusion for futurologists that much of the technology that lies ahead will have been somehow imagined in the past. Yes, futurology – it’s an actual thing. Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter, was inspired by Jules Verne’s 1886 sci-fi novel, Clipper of the Clouds. The Smithsonian catalogs ten inventions inspired by science fiction, including the rocket, the submarine, and the cell phone. Much of the technology we live with today had once been just a dream in the mind of novelists and stargazers.

Robots certainly fall into this category. A question we had at Lexicon was whether real robot names reflect the nomenclature of fictional robots. A brief analysis of about 300 robot names from science fiction revealed a few major themes.

One theme was a reliance on individual letters and/or numbers, often in the form of alphanumerics and acronyms. Some classic examples – R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8 – hail from one of the most famous sci-fi franchises, Star Wars. Others include SI-9 from the 2011 film Eva, EDI from Stealth, or even further back, L-76 from the 1964 novel The Rest of the Robots. In this context, the alphanumerics seem to represent a sort of model or ID number, highlighting the robots’ systematic industrial production; they’re consumer products.

Interestingly, another major theme we found was human names. Lenny, Jessica, Ava, Helen, Louie… the list goes on. This makes sense since many robots are androids (a word coined from Greek parts roughly meaning “human-like”), and in some imaginations, they’re virtually indistinguishable from actual people – think the Replicants from Blade Runner. Some names even combine the human and industrial elements. A few examples: Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit films, MARK13 from the 1990 film Hardware, D.A.R.Y.L. which stands for “Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform” from the film of the same name, and R.A.L.F. “Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator” from Flight of the Navigator.

Possibly because of these two opposing domains, some authors opt for ambiguous “futuristic” coinages, neither readily recognizable as a human or product name. These run the gamut from sleek and smooth to just plain uncomfortable in the mouth: Aniel, Alsatia Zevo, Zhora, Zat, Weebo, Trurl, Dorfl.

It’s not hard at all to find some of these same naming tropes in the real world: Apple’s Siri is actually an acronym that stands for “Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface”; Alexa is Amazon’s take on the concept. An even more explicit fictional borrowing is Microsoft’s Cortana, named after an AI character from the Halo games. The full categorization of these voice interface platforms as robots is up for debate, but there’s no question the naming conventions are a matter of life imitating art.

KATIA, which stands for “Kick Ass Trainable Intelligent Arm” is an example of a real robot whose name takes a cue from sci-fi. The same is true for LS3, which stands for “Legged Squad Support Systems.” On the other end of the spectrum – human names – are Jimmy, Buddy, and Lucy.

Meanwhile, the names Jibo, Rokid, Bolide, RHex, and Erigo easily fit the image of strange inventions of the future.

A final theme to note is the use of classical languages and figures. This seems to have been more common in earlier (pre-1980s) sci-fi, with names such as Rex, Colossus, Kronos, Talos, and Proteus IV. And this is yet another domain exploited by real world robots: Alpha 2, Atlas, da Vinci.

So it seems that real robot names do tend to resemble those of their sci-fi predecessors. But what do these themes mean?

On the one hand, we logically understand robots as products; but the more human-like qualities they take on, the more we feel the need to humanize them. Strange coinages are a way for us to process the sheer weirdness of robots and AI. And references to the classics may stand for the dawning of a new era, one that is uncannily similar to the beginnings of our own modern world.

Greg Alger, Director of Linguistics

Say What?

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Cars, corporate naming, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks, Uncategorized on June 13, 2013 at 3:00 am

Just how important is a brand name’s pronunciation, anyway?

When names for a new product are being weighed, there’s usually nervousness around pronunciation. Still, think of the different ways people pronounce Porsche, Hermès, Zagat.

And don’t even get us started with l’Occitane.

Some brands succeed despite tricky phonetics–so tricky that pronunciations can still vary long after the brands have become established. Zagat’s intended pronunciation is “ZAG-it,” yet many of us go for the more exotic sounding “za-GAT.”

In Europe, thanks to its profusion of languages and cultures, variability looms even larger. When Lexicon was developing the name Azure for Microsoft’s cloud platform, a company officer in Germany worried that Azure could be pronounced a dozen different ways by non-native speakers. And that client probably wasn’t even aware that native Britishers say it at least four ways: “AZH-er,” “AZH-yoor,” “AY-zher,” and “AY-zhyoor,” Yet the brand has been extremely successful, even in Europe.

So how important is pronunciation?

More than anything else, brand names are about first impressions, so it makes sense to avoid any possibility of confusion when launching a new brand. But reasonable as that rule is, sometimes it’s better to violate it.

At the outset, Acura, Honda’s premium brand in the U.S., was accented like bravura and Futura by some people. Yet, thanks to early advertising that spread virally, and also thanks to the (intentional) resemblance to accurate, an unambiguous pronunciation was quickly established, and the brand, which now has been around for three decades, is still going strong.

The correct lesson to draw from Porsche, Hermès, and l’Occitane is that a brand already well-established in its homeland will transport more easily despite pronunciation issues. In fact, the name’s oddness may help its identity. Add Zagat to that list, should you consider New York City a homeland.

There is one type of pronunciation problem that seems to trip the marketer up more badly than the marketee: sounds and sound combinations that are normal in one language but distinctly odd in another.

Japanese doesn’t have the sound [l] (or “el”) and avoids most consonant sequences. This ought to create problems for a brand like McDonald’s, yet thanks to well-established conventions for dealing with foreign words, the name is actually straightforward for Japanese speakers: makudonarudo.

English speakers are no different: hors d’oeuvres is supremely easy for us to (mis)pronounce, though it remains a devil to spell.

Bottom line: avoiding pronunciation issues is a good idea, but some odd pronunciations or spellings are not as problematic as they may seem. In fact, sometimes a difficult name delivers a beneficial, attention-getting jolt.

— Will Leben, Chair of Linguistics

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.

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Gazelle

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.

Mondelez: A Rough Maiden Voyage?

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Linguistics, Naming on May 21, 2012 at 9:09 am

We have seen an enormous amount of press for Mondelez, the name planned for Kraft’s new snack division, to be spun off from Kraft’s grocery business. If in the marketing business any publicity is a good thing, then this is a good thing.

But the reaction has generally ranged from negative to mocking. The name, chosen from 1,700 candidates submitted by Kraft employees, blends mond (the root for “world” in some major European languages) with delez, stressed on the last syllable and intended to suggest delicious.

Some object to the new brand’s perceived clunkiness. Forbes.com jokes that we can recall the name better by associating it with a former Secretary of State, as in “Mondeleza Rice.”  A few commentators class this name with fabrications like Accenture and Altria. And rightly so. If a company is going to adopt a name whose message is obscure, why take three whole syllables to do so?

More ominously, in commissioning focus groups to judge Mondelez, Kraft apparently omitted Russians, even though the name needs to work globally. A number of Web sources note the name’s potentially vulgar connotations in Russian, where it can be broken down into something sounding like “monda-LEEZ.” We verified this with our Russian linguist, Fedor Rozhanskiy. To many Russians, manda is a slang word for “vagina.” Compounding the problem, “LEEZ” sounds like the Russian verb root for “lick.” The association is—unfortunately again—by far the strongest when, as Kraft intends, the last syllable is stressed.

Kraft’s official response has been a tad defensive. “The intention is for Mondelez to be a corporate name,” Kraft spokesperson Michael Mitchell is quoted as saying on several news sites, including nj.com. “It won’t be a consumer-facing name.” But given the reactions so far, we wouldn’t be surprised if Kraft ordered further testing before putting it to shareholders for official adoption.

That’s what we’d recommend, though we do wonder about the dust this case has stirred up. In what it seems to regard as a similar situation, the Huffington Post, citing the BBC, claims that “General Motors had to change the name of its Buick LaCrosse sedan in Canada after it found that the word LaCrosse is slang for masturbation in Quebec.” That’s not quite accurate. After learning that crosse was a slang term in Quebec, GM chose to introduce the car in Canada as the Allure. But in 2009 a new management canned the Allure brand and began to use LaCrosse in Canada as it does everywhere else in the world. The brand is doing well in Canada as elsewhere.

Navigating the globe with a brand name is a complex journey where language, culture, and marketing intersect. Very precise attention must go to details of pronunciation and to linguistic and social contexts that foster or temper disruptive associations. We’ve been navigating these waters for practically twenty years at Lexicon, where our GeoLinguistics service includes an international network of Ph.D. linguists that now numbers 77.

— Will Leben and The Lexicon Team

UPDATE: The London Times published an interview (6/5/2012) they held with Lexicon CEO David Placek. He remarked on the Mondelez name:

Mr Placek dismisses the name like a medieval guild member inspecting the craft of an amateur. “Mondelez…you hear ‘eaze’ like ‘sleaze’. I’m getting nothing from it. Maybe it would work for a restaurant.”

Conveying Personality While Conveying People

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on February 23, 2012 at 4:58 pm

An old friend recently asked for advice on a project to find an attractive name for the neighborhood that is the heart of his hometown. This got us to thinking about names in the urban landscape. Do these reflect similar thinking to the brand names we develop at Lexicon for products, companies, and services? For answers we focused on some transit and shuttle services in our region.

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The San Francisco Bay Area’s rapid transit system, BART, was a natural choice, standing as it does for Bay Area Rapid Transit. However utilitarian, though, it is anything but prosaic. In fact, it may be the most attractive name for a rapid transit system in the U.S. Like MTA (Los Angeles and New York), MBTA (Boston), CTA (Boston), and RTD  (Denver), BART is an acronym. Yet of these, it’s the only one pronounced as a word rather than as a set of letters. This is also true of MARTA (Atlanta), but BART has the advantage of being just one syllable long, and brevity is a great way to symbolize the rapid in rapid transit – even if that promise isn’t carried out 100% of the time.

BART’s brevity also gives it a one-syllable advantage over the cute name for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation System, the Muni. Like Rapid (Cleveland), BART is already an English word – but the word BART works better than Rapid not just because it’s shorter but also because it’s a familiar first name. This adds a human element to the wheels that move people around the region.

How convenient, too, that the sounds of BART express the system’s mission so effectively, as shown by our studies of sound symbolism at Lexicon. The a literally exudes power – it’s the most powerful sounding vowel of English, simply because it’s pronounced with the mouth wide open. The b at the beginning ranks high in Lexicon’s studies for boldness and comfort; the r is also high in comfort, and the crisp final t correlates with speed and efficiency. As a result of all these linguistic properties, BART’s name achieves what many names try for without seeming the least bit contrived.

The tiny town of Emeryville, directly across the bay from San Francisco, has for many years operated a free shuttle that circles the town. The shuttle’s name: Emery Go Round. Its playfulness offsets the dullness of its routine and the blandness of the vans, the same type of lumbering, lunging wagons that take airport passengers to rental car agencies. Related to this is the vans’ color scheme: white with lively blue and yellow trim, a cheery addition to Emeryville’s mostly dreary streets.

Occupying a different position on the cleverness spectrum is the shuttle that connected the UC Berkeley campus to the nearest BART station in the 1970’s, the Humphrey Go-Bart. The play on the name of the actor was overly cute, on the one hand, and puzzling on the other, since there was no apparent connection between the service and either Bogart the actor or the name Humphrey. The name didn’t last long. It was phased out after a challenge from the Bogart estate and replaced by the lackluster Bear Transit.

Stanford University’s shuttle, which began to operate a shuttle around the same time as UC Berkeley, carries the name Marguerite. The name seems odd at first but the explanation – it is named after the favorite horse of Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders – connects with the past, when the university campus was the Stanford family’s “farm.” The French origin of the name Marguerite adds a touch of class – not to say overt elitism. How clever, too, to use the name of a horse to conjure nimbleness in a shuttle bus.

BART, Emery Go Round, and Marguerite reflect wildly different naming strategies, yet all add to the scenery of the Bay Area in a way that good architecture does. Mindless names, like cookie-cutter buildings, merely clutter the landscape. The same goes for brands. Bland, generic names like Easy-Pro and Reddi-Swift huddle in the shadows of creative, evocative names such as Dasani, Febreze, and Scion. Brands which instead strike a blow against the ordinary for our popular culture.

Understanding The “X” Factor

In Naming, Business, Branding, Cars, Linguistics, High Technology, Brand Name Development, corporate naming, Brand Naming on September 26, 2011 at 3:00 am

Not long ago Brand X was just a way to dismiss a brand as generic. (Or to diss competitors by not acknowledging them by name in commercials.) Then suddenly X acquired panache and power, as in Microsoft’s Xbox, Nissan’s XTerra, and The X Games from ESPN. What happened? The reasons go back to developments in the culture at large.

Logos for X Games, X Terra and XBoxSince the 17th century, x has served as an algebraic variable along with y and z, all chosen for their out-of-the-way position at the end of the alphabet. Scientific discoveries around the turn of the 20th century added uses of x that extended the algebraic meaning slightly:

  • x-ray, a term chosen by inventor Roentgen in 1896 for brevity’s sake.
  • X and Y chromosomes, named around the same time as the x-ray and again probably chosen for their out-of-the-way place in the alphabet.

The use of x for an unknown quantity crossed into a new cultural context around 1952, when Malcolm Little became the public figure Malcolm X, explaining that he replaced his slave surname with X to represent the unknown name of his ancestors.

Around the same time, x began to shift its meaning toward “restricted” and “special.” An early example is the x-rated movie. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this use to a 1950 British document suggesting a category of movie that children were to be excluded from. At the time, British ratings were set as U for “universal”, meaning anyone was welcome; A for “adult”, suggesting that children be accompanied by a grown-up; and H for “horror,” which meant only people over 16 could watch. Then nudity began to enter the picture, and in 1951 X replaced H to signify exclusion.

Next, X began making its mark on U.S. industry in a big way when, suddenly, the brand Xerox changed the game.

The Haloid Photographic Company, founded in 1906, changed its name to Haloid Xerox in 1958 and then to Xerox in 1961. Like the name Haloid, whose root halo meaning “salt” comes from Ancient Greek, the name Xerox was built on the Greek root xero meaning “dry,” creating a new term for a new printing technology: xerography – a novel technique of dry photocopying.

For a company to alter its name is a pretty big deal, involving major changes in advertising and loss in equity from the old brand. Fifty years ago, it was nothing short of heroic. But what an attractive name Xerox was, with an x on either flank. The changeover not only succeeded, it also gave x a new, futuristic connotation. Thus it was no accident that in 1972 the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey changed its name to Exxon, its double X signifying a radical break from the past.

By the 1970’s, the emergence of Xerox and Exxon had established a clearer trajectory for x: from merely expressing anonymity to symbolizing drama, power, and performance. To understand these developments better, Lexicon’s linguists analyzed X in a large sample of American English texts from 1990 up to today. We looked at X in three contexts:

  • As the second part of a two-part word (e.g., Gen X)
  • As the first part of a two-part word (e.g., X Factor)
  • As the first letter of a single word (e.g., Xena)

Categorizing the most frequent uses of X and examining patterns in their relative frequencies make it clear how X is changing in use and in meaning.

Here are the main trends:

  • Use of X across pop culture categories has been steadily increasing since 1990
  • Service/humanitarian usage of X has grown significantly
  • Use of X in technology is heaviest and continues to grow

Surprisingly, as X has become more common in the technology sector, its use has waned in the realm of science fiction, both in books and in graphic novels. This may be due to the reality of rapidly advancing technologies — where X was once seen as signaling the future, that future is now. Or maybe Marvel Comics’ X-men became so popular they essentially usurped the science fiction category for themselves.

Looking toward the new future, X in a new brand name will likely be viewed as entertainment-focused, or perhaps “tech-forward.” X may even come to express the bigger picture of a constantly interacting technology and humanity, the X Prize being a prime example.*

The evolution of x in brand names is not over. China’s role in global commerce has been expanding dramatically, and x appears in Roman transcriptions of many Chinese names. Examples include provinces like Xinjiang, Guangxi, and Jiangxi; large cities such as Xi’an, Xiamen, Wuxi, and Xiangtan; and surnames such as Xue.

This adds not just a new source of x words and potential new meanings to x. It also adds a new pronunciation. We’re used to pronouncing the xx in Exxon as the consonant sequence ks; the same for the final x in Xerox. Words that start with x we normally pronounce with a z sound — as in the words xylophone or the gas xenon. But the pronunciation of x in the Chinese examples above is different, often described as similar to the sh of sheep.

As our exposure to other world cultures expands, the meaning and pronunciation of X will no doubt keep shifting. With enough marketing clout to spread the message of a new pronunciation of x, the shame of being known as Brand X may well be a thing of the past.

Dr. Will Leben, Lexicon Director of Linguistics

*To understand these developments better, Lexicon’s linguists analyzed X in a large sample of American English texts from 1990 up to today. Corpus of Contemporary American English