Alphabet, Google's new parent company, has generated lots of business buzz this week. But the choice of "Alphabet" for the company's name is equally newsworthy. Not only does it signal a departure from Google's blandly descriptive naming style — Google Plus, Google Maps, Google Mail, and so on — but it also takes an imaginative flight away from geek-speak and toward a universe of names inspired by language and literature.
Of course, many companies whose primary business is related to the craft of language have chosen names from the vocabulary of linguistics. Metaphor, Lexicon, and Idiom are or were names of name-development agencies.
Things get more interesting when businesses adopt language-y names for non-language-y endeavors. In these cases, the lexicon of language takes on a symbolic value. But what is it symbolizing?
Consider "Alphabet" itself. As Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page put it in his announcement, "We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity's most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!" As Ben Zimmer notes in his Wall Street Journal column this week about the new name, Google is relying on a word that, despite the fact that we all learn it as children, "has only existed in English for about five centuries... derived from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, 'alpha' and 'beta.'"
Over the years, the simplicity and familiarity of alphabet have made it a logical choice for many brands seeking an evocative name. There's an Alphabet vodka (choose from 26 letter-shaped bottles), an Alphabet Energy ("a leading innovator in the field of waste heat recovery"), an Alfabet software company, and — most notably — a subsidiary of the BMW automobile company called Alphabet that owns the alphabet.com and alphabet.biz URLs. Google bypassed such obvious domain choices and instead, in a clever and forward-thinking move, opted for abc.xyz, which uses one of the newer alternatives to dot-com. (You can read more analysis of this choice on my blog, Fritinancy. And, for the record, the various Alphabet brands are not competing with Google's Alphabet, and they don't pose a likelihood of confusion. Compare, for example, Dove soap and Dove chocolate.)
One of my favorite alphabetty names (why, I wonder, isn't there a company called Alphabetty?) is Alpha Beta, once a powerful and ubiquitous chain of supermarkets in California — indeed, the alpha supermarket. When Albert Garrard opened the first store — then called Triangle Groceteria — in 1914, it was a pioneer in the novel practice of self-serve shopping. According to a historical account, customers, "inexperienced as shoppers, wandered around in confusion, unable to find the beans and tomatoes they used to get from the clerk." To bring order to the confusion, Garrard rearranged the merchandise in alphabetical order: "Baking powder was next to the beans, and tea sat next to the cans of tomatoes." In 1916, in honor of his "alpha beta" system, Garrard changed the store's name. An advertising slogan summed it up: "If your child knows the alphabet, he can shop at Alpha Beta." Eventually customers grew confident enough to shop by category rather than by the ABCs, and in 1995 Alpha Beta was swallowed by a larger competitor.
Elsewhere, language-inspired names can suggest human communication, expressiveness, and fluency — or just "Don't we sound smart!" Here, in alphabetical order, are some other companies whose names come from the lingo of language:
Acronym: The names of many companies, from IKEA to Geico, are acronyms, but Acronym is the actual name of an "intent-based digital marketing" agency with offices on three continents. Acronym literally means "highest name"; the word was coined in the U.S. in 1943, and technically applies only to names in which the first letters of words form a new word instead of being pronounced individually. (The latter is an initialism.)
Adverb: Adverb Marketing Group, on California's Central Coast, handles creative services and media buying for, yes, advertisers. There's also an Adverb Inc. digital agency in Karnataka, India, that does roughly the same thing. So ... a verb for ads? Something like that. The concept of an adverb — a part of speech that modifies a verb, an adjective, or an entire clause or sentence — must have a lot of appeal to company founders: there are dozens of company names that use the adverbial suffix -ly .
Cataphora: This technology company, which was recently folded into Chenope (not a linguistics term but rather the modified genus name of black swans), tracked and predicted personal and organizational behavior. Cataphora is the grammatical term for a word or phrase that refers to something identified later in the sentence. "If you want them, there are cookies in the kitchen" is an example of cataphora, with them referring ahead to cookies.
Infinitive: This "different kind of consultancy," based in Washington, DC, specializes in "digital ad solutions," "business transformation," and other trendy-sounding activities. The infinitive form of a verb is, according to Merriam-Webster, "normally identical in English with the first person singular that performs some functions of a noun and at the same time displays some characteristics of a verb and that is used with to (as in 'I asked him to go') except with auxiliary and various other verbs (as in 'no one saw him leave')." As a name, it suggests the quality of infinity along with verb-ish action.
Noun: In the spring of 2014, the Italian housewares company Bugatti — not to be confused with Bugatti the automaker — introduced a $1,000 transparent glass toaster called Noun that can cook steak as well as bread and can be controlled with a smartphone app. "A watershed moment in the history of toasting," gushed one reviewer. Why Noun? Well, it isn't a person or place, but it's definitely a thing.
Palindrome: A San Francisco nonprofit calls itself Palindrome Advisors because, as its motto puts it, it's "changing how leaders give back." A palindrome — from Greek words meaning "running back again" — is a word, phrase, or sentence that reads identically backward or forward. A famous palindrome is "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama."
Semicolon: The hybrid punctuation mark is peculiarly popular in marketing, and at least one organization, New York's Semicolon Theatre, has promoted it to center stage. The company, which is run by people under 21 for youthful audiences, explains the name thus:
To us, it's the absolute coolest punctuation mark. There are full sentences on either side of it, and therefore, the writer had a choice to end the sentence, but they decided to keep going. We've chosen it for the name of our little company because we could have just accepted the fact that our voices were hushed, but instead, we've decided to push through that put on works that we think deserve to be heard.
Verb: The name of Boston's Verb Hotel, which opened last year, isn't explained by its location (next door to Fenway Park, home stadium of the Boston Red Sox) or by its aesthetic (mid-century modern, with a lot of rock 'n' roll). Rather, according to the website, "if you want to get literary about it, 'Verb' describes an action, and a state of being. But we like that it came from 'reverb' — a reminder of the music and attitude that's inspired us all throughout the years." Actually, reverb(erate) and verb are unrelated etymologically, but we'll let them have their fun.
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman
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