Inventing Names From Scratch

in naming •  2 years ago  (edited)


There are lots of ways companies get their names. Some of the most common are acronyms, the second names of founders, or portmanteau constructions – BHS, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose respectively. Or then there are simply evocative words plucked from a dictionary: Virgin. One of the bolder routes to go down when choosing a company name, however, is a fantasy name.

Can’t think of anything suitable? Just make something up!

Plenty of successful companies have done just that, especially in the food industry. Think of everyone’s favourite cinema snack, Häagen-Dazs. If you’ve been scratching your head on and off about what kind of crazy language would have both a vowel soup in the form of ä+a followed by a consonant salad like z+s, then scratch no longer: the word was simply invented.

Hay-ah-gen Datsz and Haaaagen Dasss

The idea was to conjure up images of olde worlde Europe in the minds of American consumers: the message was that the ice cream didn’t come out of some faceless factory supplied with milk from cows that never see the sun, but rather from happy bovines being milked by good old Uncle Hans. Of course, the real fun started when the product was exported back to its putative homeland of “Europe” and various languages had various pronunciation difficulties.

In German, the name reads “Hay-ah-gen Datsz”, while the French make “Haaaagen Dasss” out of it; the effect though – that of being foreign and a cut above your average – works in every language, because the word is at home in none.

Quite the clever move, actually, in very much in contrast to the approach of competitor, the Unilever “heartbrand”, which uses different, heritage names for every market. In the UK, it’s Wall’s, in Germany “Lagnese”, in France “Miko”…

Another food industry example of an all-round invented name is Ocado, a fast-expanding British fresh produce delivery service. The name was completely invented to “sound like fresh fruit”, as the founder put it. Of course, it does correspond to the final two syllables of avocado, but that never seems to occur to anyone.

Certain syllables are taboo

This shows one of the things that is important with fantasy names, however: although the word might have just been coined, it hasn’t been coined into a linguistic vacuum and so it’s just as well to think about what connotations its sound might have. A made-up name like “Mosti”, for example, might not be a great food company moniker: “musty” and “moist” are two words you might not always want to associate with, say, fresh foods. Even certain syllables might be taboo: anything with “rot” or “pu/pew” in it runs the risk of making people think of rotten or putrid – even if the made-up word is completely different – say “Rotpu”. If you’re going with a fantasy name, it pays to be sensitive to sounds…

The Kodak moment

Kodak founder, George Eastman, was just that. He chose a made-up name with a K at the front and the back because he liked K, thinking it a decisive, crisp-sounding letter (compared to, say, “s” or indeed “sh”, it certainly is). He then thought through some of the other issues of fantasy naming: will/can it be mispronounced and to what extent? Does it sound like a rip-off of somebody else’s name? Will it work in other languages?

And in many ways, he got it all right: unlike C, for example, K in English is very clear-cut in pronunciation terms – it’s almost always a /k/ unless followed by an N. This minimises the potential for ambiguity, as do the simple vowels O and A. Furthermore, the word was so totally new that no-one could claim it was infringement on anything. And finally, it works in almost every language – although, with hundreds of languages out there and a limit to the sounds the human speech organ can make, that’s a big, big piece of luck…

In fact, what’s the betting that, somewhere, “ocado” means rotten and “Häagen” is the name of a stomach bug…?

What are your favourite fantasy names?

Originally published at

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