What’s in a name?

Last year, when I started toying with the idea of trying to work as a software developer on a freelance basis and maybe even setting up my own company, one of the first questions that came to my mind was ‘what name should I give my company?’ Even though I could just plod along using my own name, it makes sense to have a commercial name and a website URL based on the commercial name, especially since I intend to collaborate with more people later on and maybe, if things turn out right, start hiring a few people. After careful consideration of various possibilities, I finally decided to use the names ‘Retibus’ and ‘Nubaria’ and register the retibus.com and nubaria.com domains. In this post I will explain how I came up with these names and some of the alternatives that I considered. I hope some of the ideas here can be useful to those who are going through the process of finding a commercial name, a very hard task indeed.

1. The Importance of a Name

Let me start by stressing that choosing a good name is a very important decision for a company. There are other elements that are part of a corporate identity such as a logo and a corporate colour and typeface. Some companies add a motto or tagline to their names, and even a declaration of company values can be regarded as a part of corporate identity. But among all those elements, the name clearly stands out as the more permanent one. It is harder to change the name of a company than to come up with a new fancy logo. So, the time spent thinking about a name is time well spent.

2. Researching a Name

Last Summer, while I was in Canada, I spent some time searching the web for articles about how to name a company. After googling phrases such as ‘how to name a company’ or, in Spanish, ‘cómo nombrar a una empresa’ I read a few articles that offered some insight on company-naming (see the References section at the end of this post). There are some common recommendations that make a lot of sense, like avoiding very common words (say ‘united’ or ‘general’) or combinations that are hard to spell or to remember (and that includes spelling puns, which can be very confusing). As one would expect, there is no real consensus as to what makes up a good name, and some of the suggestions I came across sounded a bit iffy. For example, a common recommendation suggests avoiding names that start with the last letters of the alphabet. The rationale for this is that alphabetic listings in directories or fair booth assignments would place your company near the end. I didn’t consider this originally, but I don’t really think this is really important in the present-day globalised world (and a lot of companies like Xerox and Zara have done very well despite their names), so this is one of many recommendations I disregarded.

In the end, I decided that I should try to find a name with the following characteristics:

  1. It should be unique. Avoid names that are already in use.
  2. The .com domain should be available.
  3. It should be easy to spell and to pronounce, both in English and in Spanish.
  4. Preferably, there should be some rationale for the name.

3. Approaches to Naming a Company

While searching for a name I took some time to write down and analyse what the common naming techniques for companies are.

3.1 People’s Names

This used to be common in the past. A company selling hats and founded by John Smith would be called ‘John Smith Hats’. Following this time-honoured approach, I could call my company ‘Ángel Riesgo Development’ or something like that. This naming style is very common in older corporations, like Ford, Renault, Toyota, and so on. There are a few names in the software industry that follow this pattern, like Comeau Computing, but this approach has become much less common these days. The main reason is probably the need for unique names that I shall address in section 4 below.

3.2 Descriptive Names

An example of this naming technique would be Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo, the Spanish car brand nowadays better known by its acronym SEAT, or the Spanish bank Banco Español de Crédito. If I wanted to follow this approach, I could call my company Advanced Software Development Solutions or something like that. A lot of older corporations have names like this, but the fact that they have ended up using abbreviations or acronyms, like SEAT and Banesto, is a clear indication that it is not a popular naming technique by itself at present. Again, the current need for unique names discussed in section 4 below goes against these descriptive names.

3.3 Using Common Words

Using a common word, like Apple or Sky as the name of the company used to be a common approach… before the advent of the Internet and Google searches. Following this approach, I could choose a word with a positive meaning, in English or Spanish, as the name. But the problem of Internet searches and the non-uniqueness of the name (again, see section 4 below) makes this approach barely usable today.

3.4 Geographic Names

An example could be Amazon (this may actually come from the common word) or Java. This is very common in China, where companies often have names like ‘Yellow River’, usually based on their actual geographic origin. Names of astronomical bodies, like Deimos or Andromeda, would fall in this category, but they generally are indistinguishable from mythological names, the next case I consider.

3.5. Mythological or Literary References

An example is Yahoo!, an imaginary being in Gulliver’s Travels. I have thought that this might be worth exploring, but I haven’t been able to find any names that I really like. I have searched the web for names of deities related to nets (as used by fishermen and hunters in antiquity), but I have found very little. A Greek goddess of nets was Britomartis, but the name doesn’t have a nice ring to it. She was also referred to as Dictynna, which sounds slightly better. A temple to Dictynna is referred to as a ‘dictynnaion’. The plural, probably ‘dictynnaia’, could be worth considering. However, these names are difficult to spell, which is a problem when you just want to tell somebody to check your website, for example, and give them a name that they can type without hesitation.

3.6. Portmanteau Compounds

This is a blend of two separate words (see the Wikipedia article), typically a combination of a prefix or a suffix with a main word. Microsoft and GeoVirtual are examples of this naming approach. I have thought of names like ‘Ultraweb’, ‘Hyperweb’, ‘Transnetting’, ‘Webbity’, ‘Webbility’, ‘Webnergy’, ‘Softopia’, ‘Neosoftia’, ‘Webanista’ (based on the Spanish word ‘ebanista’) and others. Using a suffix like ‘-nia’ or ‘-ia’, typical of placenames, can lead to some interesting names like ‘Softania’ or ‘Softwania’ (this is the technique used by Navegalia, an old Spanish-language web portal). The problem is that many of these names are already being used by somebody. However, this is usually a good approach, and it is relatively easy to come up with names that no-one’s using.

3.7 Using Words from Lesser-known Languages

Wikipedia is based on the Hawai’ian word ‘wiki’. An idea I considered was looking for a word in Asturian, but I didn’t come up with any that I particularly liked and that were not being used by anyone. A beautiful Asturian word is ‘ayalga’, which means ‘treasure’, but it turns out that there’s already a software company that uses that name.

Turning my attention to Asian languages, a word I like is ‘jadoo’, which is Hindi for ‘magic’, and I found it on a website that glosses Indian terms found in Salman Rushdie’s books. This Indian word was used by Rudyard Kipling too (see In the House of Suddhoo), and it is visually attractive as well. I find that names that contain ‘oo’ tend to have an appealing look (just think of Google, Yahoo!, Joomla and Boost). Web searches reveal the term to be quite positive in meaning as it has been used for a number of commercial projects, mainly in the Indian subcontinent. I thought about using ‘jadoo’ in a portmanteau combination like ‘Softjadoo’, but the fact that there are some similar names in use in the Indian subcontinent and that there is no Indian connection to my business project made me ditch this idea. Besides, a name based on ‘jadoo’ would not meet my requirement that the name should be easy to spell and pronounce in Spanish.

Another option I have considered is the possibility of using Latin or ancient Greek for the name. This turned out to be more productive than other options I explored. Since networks and cloud computing are at the heart of my software development work, I started to play with the Latin words for ‘net’, rēte, and for ‘cloud’, nūbēs. Whereas the base form of these words is very common and can be confused with some common words (rete is used in Italian and nubes in Spanish), I found that by declining them and juggling with some suffixes I was able to find some interesting combinations that were not common at all in Google searches. For example, adding the ‘-aria’ suffix to the root in Latin nūbēs I got the name ‘Nubaria’, which exists as an Egyptian placename, but not as a commercial name or a .com domain. This is one of my favourite options and I have registered the nubaria.com domain for my cloud computing experiments. As for rēte, I found that some of the declined forms were in use but not the dative and ablative plural form rētibus (‘with the nets’). As far as a Google search can reveal, nobody is using this Latin word as a commercial name and the .com domain was available, so I decided to register it and this is the main domain I am using now. I actually like the use of the ablative because it encapsulates the idea that what we do is related to networks: we work with networks, for networks, using networks. Note that there is no proper Latin word for ‘network’ as opposed to ‘net’. While researching this, I came across this excellent article by Keith Briggs about the etymology of the English word ‘network’.

3.8 Abbreviations and Acronyms

I have already mentioned how common names or words are not distinctive enough to be used as unique names in a globalised world. However, common words can be turned into more distinctive names through the use of acronyms or abbreviations. I think unpronounceable acronyms like BCDFGH are not good because they inevitably have to be pronounced letter by letter. Abbreviating words with full syllables is a better approach since it can give rise to a name that is pronounceable as if it were a word. For example, phrases like ‘web development’, ‘web solutions’ or ‘software projects’ can be abbreviated as ‘Webdev’, ‘Websols’, ‘Softproj’. This approach can be very productive, but the problem with it is that it is so common that most of these ideas are either the same or very similar to the names of companies that already exist.

3.9 Other Ideas: Palindromic Names

Palindromic names can be interesting. I remember when I was working for GeoVirtual we used to collaborate with a company called Tururut, and I thought the palindromic name, which is a Catalan word, was quite cool. This led me to consider the possibility of building some sort of palindromic name based on the word ‘web’, such as ‘Webbew’ and ‘Webbybbew.’ The first one is the name of a well-known computer virus, so it is not a good idea. ‘Webbybbew’ has the problem of the second double b, which looks a bit weird as an English spelling. ‘Webbybew’ would adhere to English spelling rules better, but it’s not a palindrome any more. Oh well. Anyway, these names would flout my requirement that the name should be easy to spell and pronounce for Spanish speakers, and I am not sure that using ‘web’ in a name is really a good idea any more, so in the end I wasn’t able to come up with any good palindromic name.

3.10 A Meaningless Name

Google is a very good example of this. Another case I know well is Kelseus, the first name of the company I used to work for in England. Note that personal and descriptive names, cases 3.1 and 3.2 above, can actually be combined with this one through an acronym. The advantage of choosing a meaningless name is that one has much more leeway with fanciful combinations of sounds. There are some very good names that don’t seem to have any particular meaning. For example, the Spanish national railway company RENFE has always had very good names for its train services. I am not aware that ‘Alvia’, ‘Alaris’ or ‘Altaria’ mean anything at all, but there is something poetic about those names, just like ‘Google’, which does actually sound like the number ‘googol’, so it may be regarded as a scientific reference, yet another possibility worth exploring.

3.11 Scientific References

I have just mentioned how ‘Google’ is apparently based on a re-spelling of ‘googol’, a fanciful name for the number 10100. Scientific vocabulary, as exemplified by words like ‘zenith’ or ‘positron’ can be a good source for interesting names. I have been thinking about some technical words used in Physics and Astronomy, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything that sounds right. The only option I have entertained seriously consists in using one of the names for meteor showers, like Ursids, Ariatids or Lyrids. But I didn’t find such names more appealing than Retibus and Nubaria, so I ended up discarding them.

4. A 21st-Century Consideration: Web Searches and the Uniqueness of Names

The worldwide web has introduced a new problem in naming businesses which didn’t exist 20 years ago, and which is the reason for my requirement that whatever name I choose must be unique. Basically, people use web searches to find information, so common names like ‘Smith’ or ‘Apple’ that were acceptable in the past are very bad choices nowadays. A company called ‘Smith Foodstuffs Ltd’ will be difficult to find through a Google search because of the common names and words involved. Furthermore, there is the problem of registering a domain for a website. People expect that ‘www.microsoft.com’ will be the corporate international site of Microsoft, and if I decide to name my company ‘foofoo’ I should make sure that I can register the ‘foofoo.com’ domain. This is a very important factor these days and it lends support to the idea that a company named in the 21st century should have an original name that is unique.

5. Conclusion

Choosing a name is a very important decision. Once a name has been chosen and is in use, it is difficult to change it, and so the decision must be carefully considered. Among the options I initially singled out as candidates, I eventually decided to adopt both ‘Retibus’ and ‘Nubaria’ as my preferred names. My intention right now is to use ‘Retibus Software’ as the more general name and reserve ‘Nubaria’ for a more concrete project that involves cloud computing. Anyway, I may revisit this decision in future and swap the use of the names (several people have told me Nubaria is more euphonic). If anyone has a suggestion or opinion, feel free to use the comments section to let me know.

6. References

  1. The Name Game: Naming Your Business. This article recommends clear, easy to remember names (but also unique). Start the name with A, B, C… to avoid being at the end in alphabetical listings.
  2. The Name Game. This article also recommends a name starting with the first letters of the alphabet.
  3. Guidelines For A Powerful Business Name. The author of this article, Naseem Javed, is very critical of names difficult to spell or remember, but at the same time he rejects common names like “General”, “United” and praises unique names like Sony or Panasonic.
  4. ¿Cómo crear el nombre de mi empresa?. This Spanish web page tells some stories behind the names of some famous companies.
  5. ¿Cómo crear un nombre rentable para tu empresa? Another interesting article in Spanish with a few guidelines.
  6. Cómo nombrar una sociedad: nombres subjetivos y objetivos, Cómo nombrar una sociedad: ¿qué no se puede usar como nombre?, Cómo nombrar una sociedad: reglas de identidad entre nombres This series of blog posts explain some legal issues about company names in Spain.
  7. A Hundred Monkeys – Case Studies. A Hundred Monkeys is a consultancy company that helps companies with company and product naming and branding. This link shows some interesting case histories.
  8. Business Name & Tag Line Generator This website insists on the idea of intensive brainstorming and rejecting names that are unpronounceable, hard to spell or hardly distinctive. The page advertises the services of a branding company.
  9. A New Business Name A New Business Image This is the website of a freelance professional who gives ideas for names for a fee of US$ 240.
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