On the Origin of Names by Angela Caldin

One of the highlights of the recent school holidays was a visit with the grandchildren to the Tip Top Ice Cream Factory. The tour encompassed the history of the product, a view of the factory floor where ice cream flowed unstoppably, and, at the end, the choice of whichever delicious ice cream we wanted.

Our spritely tour guide told us that in 1936, Albert Hayman and Len Malaghan opened their first Ice Cream Parlour in Wellington, NZ. It’s believed that they were discussing business whilst travelling in a train dining car when they overheard a passenger commenting that his meal was ‘tip top’. They decided that they would like to hear people say that about their ice cream and the name for their new business was born.

It started me wondering how other companies had found their names and, whizzing about the net, I discovered all kinds of methods. Some have dug in the rich soil of Latin or Greek. Fonterra, the parent company of Tip Top, comes from the Latin fons, meaning fountain or spring and terra, meaning land, so the name means ‘spring from the land’. (Greenpeace would take issue with Fonterra’s treatment of the land, but that’s another story.) The recent rebranding exercise which came up with Aviva, claims it has roots in the Latin word for life and reminded consumers of vitality and well-being. Nike, the famous sportswear manufacturer, was named after the Greek goddess of victory, strength and speed. It’s said that the famous swoosh logo is based on the curve of her wings.

Some turn to literature and art. Starbucks, the coffee shop chain, was named after Starbuck, the first mate in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick.  The founders thought the name evoked the romance of the high seas. One founder liked the name ‘Pequod’ (the ship in the novel), but changed his mind after his partner responded, ‘No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod!’

Yahoo! is one of the world’s largest search engines. The word ‘Yahoo’ was invented by Jonathan Swift in his book Gulliver’s Travels. It signifies a person who is repulsive, uncouth and barely human. Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang jokingly considered themselves yahoos.  Yahoo is an acronym for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle’.

When the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps, started, Paul McCartney is quoted as saying: ‘We’re starting a brand new form of business. So, what is the first thing that a child is taught when he begins to grow up? A is for Apple’. McCartney then suggested Apple Core, but they couldn’t register that, so they used ‘Corps’. McCartney later revealed that he had been inspired by René Magritte’s painting, Le Jeu de Mourre, featuring an apple with the words ‘Au revoir’ painted on it.

By contrast, Apple Computers was apparently randomly named for Steve Jobs’ love of apples. Legend has it that he sent round an email saying that unless someone came up with a better name by 5 o’clock that day, he would register the name Apple. No-one replied and the rest is history. The legal dispute between Apple Computers and Apple Corps went on for years and was only settled in 2007.

Other namings are more mundane. DANONE’s founder, Isaac Carasso, made his first yogurts in Barcelona with the nickname of his first son Daniel, DAN-ONE. Adobe Systems got their name from the Adobe Creek that ran behind the house of the co-founder.   Google was apparently an accidental misspelling of the word googol and settled upon because google.com was unregistered. Googol was proposed to reflect the company’s mission to organise the immense amount of information available online and refers to the number represented by a 1 followed by one-hundred zeros.

Twitter first considered the name Twitch for their social networking service. Co-founder Jack Dorsey says: “We looked in the dictionary for words around it and we came across the word ‘twitter’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’, and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Others use branding companies to find a name and pay a great deal for the service. David Placek, head of the company who invented BlackBerry, says his team wanted a name that was ‘natural, entertaining and joyful, that might decrease blood pressure.’  When someone pointed out that the tiny buttons on the device looked like seeds, fruity names were explored: strawberry, melon and various vegetables were all bandied about. The company finally settled on blackberry because they found the word attractive and the device, at the time, was black. Placek says: ‘If you want to get attention, you don’t describe something, you create a new concept.’

Whichever way it’s arrived at, a company name is vitally important and can make the difference between success and failure. Branding specialists say that it should be easy to spell, pronounce and remember, and should have positive connotations for the business in question. I’m not sure whether Nike fits into those rules, as no-one seems to know if it’s one or two syllables. And Yahoo doesn’t have positive connotations as far as I can tell. The truth is that a successful name needs to have that certain indefinable something which plants itself in the public’s imagination and stays there.

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