From the New Yorker, an examination of what makes or breaks a brand name.
There are various ways a corporate name can seem apposite. In the case of existing words, connotations are crucial: a Corvette is a light, speedy attack ship; Tesla was an inventor of genius. Made-up names often rely instead on resonances with other words: Lexus evokes luxurious; Viagra conjures virility and vitality. Bad names bring the wrong associations to consumers’ minds. In the nineteen-eighties, United Airlines tried to turn itself into a diversified travel company called Allegis. The move was a fiasco. No less an authority than Donald Trump (whose faith in brand-name power is total) said that the name sounded “like the next world-class disease.”
The phonemes in a name can themselves convey meaning. This idea goes back to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. A philosopher called Hermogenes argues that the relationship between a word and its meaning is purely arbitrary; Cratylus, another philosopher, disagrees; and Socrates eventually concludes that there is sometimes a connection between meaning and sound. Linguistics has mostly taken Hermogenes’ side, but, in the past eighty years, a field of research called phonetic symbolism has shown that Cratylus was on to something. In one experiment, people were shown a picture of a curvy object and one of a spiky object. Ninety-five per cent of those who were asked which of two made-up words—“bouba” or “kiki”—best corresponded to each picture said that “bouba” fit the curvy object and “kiki” the spiky one. Other work has shown that so-called front-vowel sounds, like the “i” in “mil,” evoke smallness and lightness, while back-vowel sounds, as in “mal,” evoke heaviness and bigness. Stop consonants—which include “k” and “b”—seem heavier than fricatives, like “s” and “z.” So George Eastman displayed amazing intuition when, in 1888, he devised the name Kodak, on the ground that “k” was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”
Read the rest of the piece here.