When I interviewed a gardening specialist years ago for a story unrelated to gardening, she used a phrase to illustrate one of her points that I just couldn’t understand. It sounded like “squash vine bores,” and I had to ask her to repeat it three times because I couldn’t settle the unfamiliar sounds in “vine bores” into words. I wrote it down, then later emailed to check the spelling, and learned that it should have been “vine borers.” She was happy to help me get it right, but if that had been a company name or product name rather than just a phrase, the company behind that name would have been in deep trouble.
If customers, referral sources and media people can’t correctly translate the spoken version of your business name into writing, or if they can’t make sense of it when they hear the name, word of mouth publicity hits a major snag.
Problematic Factors in Understanding the Sound of a Company Name
Foreign sounds. In 1915, California farmers banded together to rename the ahuacate, a pear-shaped fruit with pebbly skin and an oversized pit inside. They knew this Aztec word was hard for Americans to pronounce, and the Spanish name, aguacate, was just as difficult for them. The new made-up name they agreed upon, avocado, sounds vaguely Latin American but does not give English speakers any problems.
Unusual letter sequences. Zion National Park in Utah was originally called Mukuntuweap – its Paiute Indian name. Local Mormon settlers successfully lobbied for its official name to be changed to Zion on the grounds that people feel more comfortable visiting a place when they can pronounce its name.
Awkward word breaks. With a two-word name, the ending sounds of the first word can interfere with understanding the second word. This is most likely to occur when the first word ends with a sound very similar to the way the next word starts. For example, when I once told someone over the phone that my book was called Six Steps to Free Publicity, he asked me to repeat the title and told me he’d initially heard it as “Six Debts.” Try to avoid multiword names that require a careful space between the words in order to be heard correctly.
If you are looking to a foreign language for your company name, beware of names with sounds that English doesn’t have. For example, Xiao Palace would be a terrible name for a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., while Ming Feast would be perfectly fine.
Here it’s not so much that the component sounds don’t occur in English. Rather, trouble occurs when the syllables don’t follow English-language patterns. That’s also why Internet startup names like GlibJix, Kazalpa and Blaxnort (which I made up, but without exaggerating) inevitably sound like characters in a science fiction novel, not like companies. Nonexistent words are much easier to hear when they have a closer resemblance to existing ones.
Mishearing especially affects song lyrics, where people can hear the Beatles line, “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “The girl with colitis goes by.” Likewise, someone who’s not from California can mishear PG&E, a big utility company, as “Peach Eating.”
To make sure your favorite proposed new name doesn’t fall victim to incomprehension or mishearing, subject it to what I call the Telephone Test. Answer the phone with your possible name and if there’s either a stunned “What did you say?” or hysterical laughter from the other end, discard that option. Keep trying, for a name that gets passed along easily and accurately.
Copyright ?? 2010 Marcia Yudkin
— Marcia Yudkin is Head Stork of Named At Last, a company that brainstorms creative business names, product names and tag lines for clients. For a systematic process of coming up with an appealing and effective name or tag line, download a free copy of “19 Steps to the Perfect Company Name, Product Name or Tag Line” at http://www.namedatlast.com/19steps.htm