At the end of each year, while linguists and lexicographers cast votes for words of the year, I'm compiling a different list: the brand names that distilled the mood of the previous twelve months. To narrow the field, I add another criterion: the brand names must have linguistic or onomastic significance — onomastics being the study of names.
Here, in alphabetical order, are my top ten brand names of 2014:
Apple Watch. Introduced in September, Apple's entry into wearable technology was notable not only for its design and multifunctionality but also for what the name lacked: the i prefix we've come to expect from the wizards of Cupertino. In fact, the "Apple" of the name isn't even a word: it's an image.
As I noted in a blog post about the watch, "the icon moves the name into emoji territory — visual rather than verbal." Or think of it as a partial rebus: a puzzle made up of symbols instead of words — a global, post-literate expression.
Cortana. In April, Microsoft announced the launch of its "digital personal assistant" for Windows Phone 8.1. Like the iPhone's Siri, Cortana takes feminine pronouns ("She'll ask you if you mind answering a few questions"). Unlike Siri, Cortana has a profile and a history: it's the name of a character, voiced by actress Jen Taylor, introduced in Halo: Combat Evolved, the first-person-shooter game published in 2001 by Microsoft Game Studios. In that game and its many sequels, Cortana is an artificial-intelligence construct that resides as a neural implant in the battle armor of the protagonist, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117. "Cortana" has an independent meaning: it's a type of sword with a blunted or broken end, also known as a "sword of mercy." The word entered English in the 15th century, adapted from cortain, the name of the sword carried by Roland in the early medieval French epic poem La Chanson de Roland; both words are related to Latin curtus, or "short."
Ello. This invitation-only social network attracted a lot of attention — and investment dollars — when it launched in March 2014 with a cryptic manifesto and the slogan "Simple, Beautiful, & Ad-Free." The name has remained a mystery, too, although it's most likely a truncated "hello."
Ello's minimalist logo: an eye-less smile.
Whatever the name signifies, it isn't unique. Ello Products makes water bottles and kitchen organizers; ELLO TV claims to be the most popular Russian music channel on YouTube; and the Ello Creation System was a toy set manufactured by Mattel in the early 2000s. Perhaps the new Ello isn't just post-advertising — it's post-originality.
Hachette. The venerable book publisher — fourth largest in the world, founded in France in 1826 — wasn't exactly David to Amazon's Goliath, but its almost-year-long contract fight with the online "everything store" did underscore the differences between traditional and "disruptive" business models: Amazon insisted on controlling the prices of the e-books it sells; Hachette wanted to set its own prices. The dispute was finally settled in November (victory: Hachette), but not before many best-selling Hachette authors spoke out publicly against what they saw as Amazon's bullying tactics. Within a month, Hachette fired its own digital salvo, announcing that it would begin selling books on Twitter. As for the Hachette name, it's the surname of the company's founder, Louis Hachette (1800–1864), and also the French word for "hatchet" — amusingly apt in this story of price chops.
Heartbleed. How to get people to pay attention to a serious Internet-security flaw? By giving it "a cool logo," developed "in a few hours" by a Finnish graphic designer working for the security firm Codenomicon. "Heartbleed" was originally Codenomicon's internal codename; the bug's official name is CVE-2014-0160. CVE stands for "common vulnerabilities and exposures."
Hobby Lobby. The 44-year-old craft-supply chain, which is headquartered in Oklahama City, celebrated a legal victory in June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the company did not have to pay for insurance coverage of female contraception under the Affordable Care Act. (Hobby Lobby had claimed religious objections.) As I wrote in my August column, "New Names from (Very) Old Words," hobby and lobby have centuries-old histories in English: hobby goes back to the late 13th century, when it meant a small horse; and lobby was adopted in the 1530s from laubia, a medieval Latin word meaning "a covered walk in a monastery." The catchy rhyme makes the company name memorable and appropriately playful.
Leafly. On August 3, the company that calls itself "the world's largest cannabis information resource" took out a full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times, congratulating New York State on the passage of a medical-marijuana law (and touting its own cannabis-comparison service). The ad was both revolutionary and reassuring: It resembled something a mainstream pharmaceutical company might produce, and it used a slogan — "Just Say Know" — that played on the anti-drug "Just Say No" rallying cry of the 1980s and 1990s.
Full-page Leafly ad, New York Times, August 3, 2014.
The Leafly name is relatively sophisticated, too. Side-stepping direct reference to drugs or altered states of consciousness, it employs synecdoche (the use of a part to stand for the whole — "leaf" instead of "marijuana plant"). And the -ly suffix places it solidly within one of the most popular naming trends of the last several years.
Strategy&. The ampersand isn't a typo: it's part of the new name of Booz & Company, a 100-year-old management consultancy that had been spun off from rival consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in 2008. The spinoff had mandated a name change, which was revealed earlier this year. (Web addresses can't include ampersands, so you'll have to search for strategyand.com.) As with the apple icon in Apple Watch's logo, the punctuation symbol here is meant to be an efficient, image-driven shorthand and a way of saying "We may be a hundred years old, but we're modern and cool."
Uber. The rideshare app — based in San Francisco and operating in more than 200 cities worldwide — was founded in 2009, but 2014 was the year it truly became a household word, not always for positive reasons. Yes, the company was valued at a boggling $40 billion in December, up from $18 billion a mere six months earlier. But it was also beset by controversy: lawsuits, protests by licensed cab drivers in many European cities, revelations of unethical behavior on the part of top corporate executives. On the one hand, "Uber" — German for "over," but minus the umlaut — seemed to characterize the company's above-it-all arrogance. On the other hand, the app is undeniably popular — so much so that "Uber for __" now describes myriad unrelated businesses in the "shared economy": Uber for snowplowing, for kids, for pizza, for gentleman companions, for flowers, for marijuana, and on and on.
Yo. It's a mobile app with a single function — to send the word "yo" to any friend who also uses the app. It was created in eight hours and launched, with a certain sense of irony, on April 1, 2014. Dumb, right? Maybe not. The app attracted $1.5 million in funding and has been downloaded more than 2 million times. Wall Street Journal technology columnist Christopher Mims asserted in August that "Yo — or a Yo-like service — is the next Twitter." (His justification: "Yo provides any person, business, or Web service direct access to the notifications tray of your smartphone.") "Yo" is, of course, a minimal greeting — briefer than "hello," terser than "Ello," one character shorter than "hey." And if you think it's recent slang, think again: The Oxford English Dictionary has a 1958 citation for "Yo, Frank!" And as "an exclamation of incitement, warning, etc.," its usage goes back at least to the middle of the 15th century.
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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