Tag Archives: common noun

The Name Game, Part I: What’s in a (brand) name?


From amazon to Ziploc, Google to Yahoo!, there’s a host of memorable and marketable brand names that both color our daily language and lord over our common nouns like rock-stars with snappy stage-names. Designed specifically to be ‘sticky’, alluring, unique, easily pronounced and remembered, and especially suited to the product or brand they represent, the names themselves tend ironically to be fairly homogenous in their etymologies, usually falling into one of five basic brand-naming-formula categories: 1) the name (usually surname) of the brand founder(s), 2) an acronym, 3) a portmanteau, 4) one or more meaningful existing proper names (or even common nouns) symbolic of the product in question, and 5) a nickname or invented word symbolic  of or peculiar to the brand or those that created it. (To read more about portmanteaux, see an earlier Glossophilia post: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=1355; and here is Glossophilia’s exploration of acronyms: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=1342.)

Setting aside those brand names — such as McDonald’s, Levi’s, and FAO Schwarz — whose namesakes are simply founders’ names and therefore which need no further explanation, let’s look at some famous examples of brands with crafty or creative monikers whose origins aren’t so obvious. Once the  codes are cracked, it’s easy to see in which of the categories above the brand names evolved — and succeeded. Thanks to Wikipedia for many of these entries — some verbatim and some parsed.

Aflac (insurance company):

Acronym: the initial letters of the company’s original (and long-winded) name: American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus

Aldi (grocery store):

Portmanteau: Albrecht (name of the founders) and discount

amazon.com (online general retailer):

Named after the South American river, which is the world’s second-longest and the largest in terms of waterflow

Amoco (oil company):

Portmanteau: American Oil Company

Amstrad (audio equipment):

Portmanteau: its founder’s name: Alan Michael Sugar Trading

AOL (online service provider):

Quasi-acronym: America OnLine

Apple (computers):

Named after the fruit: because it was the favorite fruit of co-founder Steve Jobs, and/or because he had worked at an apple orchard

Coca-Cola (carbonated drink):

Named in 1885 for its two supposedly medicinal ingredients: extract of coca leaves (from which was derived the cocaine in the original recipe) and caffeine, from the kola nut. (The “k” of kola was replaced by a “c” to make the name more memorable and marketable).  See also Pepsi-Cola below.

Duane Reade (pharmacy – and more recently grocery – retail chain):

Named after Duane and Reade Streets in lower Manhattan, where the chain’s first warehouse was located

eBay (online auction house):

Invented word. Ebay started life as AuctionWeb. Its founder, Pierre Omidyar, had already formed a web consulting firm called Echo Bay Technology Group. “It just sounded cool”, according to Omidyar. However, a gold-mining company called Echo Bay Mines Ltd had already taken the URL EchoBay.com, so Omidyar registered his second choice for a name, eBay.com: thus AuctionWeb became eBay.

Esso (oil company):

Quasi-acronym: The pronunciation of the initials of Standard Oil of New Jersey (SO = Esso)

FedEx (express courier):

Portmanteau: Federal Express Corporation, the company’s original name

Fiat (automobiles):

Acronym: Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory of Turin)

Finnair (airline):

Portmanteau: Finland and air

Google (search engine):

Invented word: An accidental misspelling of the word googol (the name of the number that has a one followed by 100 zeros); chosen to signify the vast quantity of results/information to be provided by the search engine

IKEA (home and furniture retailer):

Acronym: the first letters of the Swedish founder Ingvar Kamprad’s name plus the first letters of the names of the property and village in which he grew up: Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd

Kinko’s (print and reproduction service):

From a nickname. At college, the company’s founder, Paul Orfalea, was called Kinko because of his curly red hair

Kleenex (facial tissues):

An invented word. In the early 1920s, Kimberly-Clark, a paper manufacturer, developed its first consumer product, Kotex, a feminine hygiene product made of creped wadding; unfortunately it didn’t fare well in the marketplace when first introduced. Seeking to find other ways to use its large supply of creped wadding, the company’s scientists developed a softer crepe and from this the idea of Kleenex facial tissue was born. The Kleenex tissue was envisioned as a disposable cleansing tissue to clean away cosmetics, and was marketed by the same team that developed the Kotex pad.  The name Kleenex was probably a combination of the word “cleansing” (or “clean”) with the capital “K” and the “ex” taken from Kotex.

Kodak (camera and photographic goods):

An invented word. Coined by founder George Eastman, who favored the letter ‘k’ (thinking it strong and incisive), he tried out various new words starting and ending with ‘k’. He saw three advantages in Kodak: It had the merits of a trademark word, it would not be mis-pronounced, and it did not resemble anything in the art. A common misconception that the name is onomatopoeic, sounding like the shutter of a camera.

Lego (toy bricks and construction tools):

Portmanteau (from Danish words): Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter, began making wooden toys in 1932. Two years later, his burgeoning company was named “Lego”, from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning “play well”

Mattel (toy company):

Portmanteau: founders’ names Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler

Mitsubishi (automobiles):

Portmanteau: Japanese words mitsu, meaning three, and hishi (with the ‘h’ changed to a ‘b’) meaning diamond (as in the shape, not the gem). Hence the three-diamond logo.

Nabisco (biscuits/cookies):

Portmanteau: its original name, the National Biscuit Company

Nike (sports shoes and apparel):

Named after the Greek goddess of victory

Pepsi (carbonated drink):

(Originally Pepsi Cola): Named after two of its ingredients: the digestive enzyme pepsin and kola nuts.

PG Tips (tea):

Invented name.  Originally Pre-Gest-Tee, the tea’s name implied that it could be drunk prior to eating food, as a digestive aid. Grocers and salesmen abbreviated it to PG. Once labeling tea as a digestive aid was outlawed in the ’40s, the PG name was officially adopted. The company later added “Tips”, referring to the fact that only the tips (the top two leaves and bud) of the tea plant are used in the blend

Pixar (animation studio):

Portmanteau: pixel and the co-founder’s name, Alvy Ray Smith

Qantas (airline):

Acronym: its original name, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services

Reebok (sports shoes and apparel):

Named after an African antelope (an alternative spelling is “rehbok”)

Samsonite (luggage):

Named after the Biblical character Samson, who was renowned for his strength

Skype (online communication provider):

Quasi-portmanteau: the original idea for the name was SkyPeer-to-Peer, which became Skyper, then Skype

Sony (record label and audio equipment):

From the Latin word ‘sonus’ meaning sound

Starbucks (coffee retailer/house chain):

Named after Starbuck, a character in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; also derived from Starbo, which was a mining camp north of Seattle when the coffee shop/chain was founded in that city

Tesco (retailer):

Acronym/portmanteau: founder Jack Cohen, a London market green-grocer, received a large shipment of tea from T. E. Stockwell. He named his new company using the first three letters of the supplier’s name and the first two letters of his surname

Verizon (phone provider):

Portmanteau: veritas (Latin for truth) and horizon

Virgin (record retailer/label, airline, travel company):

Named after the existing word. Founder Richard Branson, while still at school, started a magazine out of which grew an off-shoot business selling records by mail order; according to Branson, “one of the girls suggested: ‘What about Virgin? We’re complete virgins at business.'”

Twitter (social media channel):

Named after an existing word: twitter. Co-founder Jack Dorsey explained: “We were trying to name it, and mobile was a big aspect of the product early on … We liked the SMS aspect, and how you could update from anywhere and receive from anywhere. We wanted to capture that in the name — we wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word “twitch,” because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But “twitch” is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Yahoo! (service provider):

Named after a made-up word, yahoo, invented by Jonathan Swift, which he used in his book Gulliver’s Travels; it describes someone who is repulsive in appearance and barely human, which Yahoo!’s founders, David Filo and Jerry Yang, jokingly considered themselves to be.

Ziploc (storage bags):

Presumably a form of portmanteau or compound word combining the first part of the word zipper and lock without the “k” (with the zippered bag locking in flavor and freshness)




A flock of nouns of multitude

The answer to my previous post, “A singular quiz”, is that they’re all collective nouns, or nouns of multitude, and specifically terms of venery.

We’re familiar with the phrases “a flock of sheep” and “a pride of lions”, and similar collective nouns specific to certain groups or types of people, such as a “company of actors”, a “troupe of dancers”, a “class of students”, a “platoon of soldiers”, an “orchestra of musicians”, and even a “bevy of beauties”. The terms of venery — such words that refer to animals — can be especially poetic and descriptive, and below is Wikipedia’s explanation for their fascinating collective history and etymology (along with a list of my personal and most poetic favorites, which is by no means exhaustive). Also below is a list of my favorite flavory collective nouns used to describe certain professions or subsets of society, two of which need to be singled out for special attention: a “conjunction of grammarians” and a “shrivel of critics”. Whoever dreamed up those particular terms of venery must be the very epitome of style and wit. As a matter of fact, we do know the author of at least one of them, as explained in the next paragraph. It’s noted in Wiki’s explanation that these terms, even when they were first coined, never really had any practical application: they were “intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.” How lucky for all writers and poets (and even for us readers) that they persist in our lexicon today — some of them surprisingly so. The fact that a “gaggle” is still used to describe not just a flock of geese but also a collection of women (usually of the giggling or talkative kind) is interesting in these days of post-feminism and political correctness; this term was one of the many deliberately humorous words listed in the Book of Saint Albans, published in 1486.

James Lipton, best known to us as the creator and host of the American TV show Inside the Actors Studio, is — among many other things — a great lover of words. (Indeed, one of his favorite moments of his show — and definitely one of mine — is when he asks his actor subjects for mostly single-word answers to his questionnaire: favorite curse word? favorite and least favorite sounds? etc.) Lipton has a special interest in collective nouns, and he has published a definitive, best-selling book on the subject: An Exaltation of Larks (1968). Lipton has even invented some of his own nouns of multitude, including a “score of bachelors”, an “unction of undertakers”, a “shrivel of critics” (it had to come from an actor or some kind of performing artist), and a “queue of actors”.

Let’s not bore ourselves here (except to single out the lovely expression “a singular of boars”) with the questions and complexities of which verb forms (singular or plural) should be used with these collective nouns. Suffice to say the Brits and the Yanks diverge in their usage: in British English, collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context and something called the “implied metonymic shift”. It is perfectly acceptable in England to say “the class have finished their homework” (especially if all the students in the class had the same homework). However, in American English, collective nouns take singular verb forms: “the class has finished its homework”. This matter was discussed in an earlier Glossophilia blog post: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=156

Some of my favorite nouns of assembly (for professions or groups of people):

– A tabernacle of bakers
– A shuffle of bureaucrats
– A hastiness of cooks
– A shrivel of critics
– A decanter of deans
– An obstruction of dons
– A galaxy of governesses
– A conjunction of grammarians
– A melody of harpists
– An observance of hermits
– A neverthriving of jugglers
– A superfluity of nuns
– A scolding of seamstresses
– A disguising of tailors
– A prudence of vicars
– An ambush of widows

Some of my favorite terms of venery:

– A shrewdness of apes
– A pace of asses
– A cete of badgers
– A sloth or sleuth of bears
– A singular of boars
– An obstinacy of buffalo
– A clowder or pounce of cats
– An intrusion of cockroaches
– A rag of colts
– A murder of crows
– A cowardice of curs
– A pitying of doves
– A business of ferrets
– A charm of finches
– A leash or skulk of fox
– A tower of giraffes
– An implausibility of gnus
– A trip of goats
– A down or husk of hares
– A bloat of hippopotamuses
– A cry or mute of hounds
– A cackle of hyenas
– An intrigue of kittens
– A deceit of lapwings
– An exaltation of larks
– A leap of leopards
– A pride of lions
– A labor of moles
– A span or barren of mules
– A richness of martens
– A romp of otters
– A parliament of owls
– An aurora of polar bears
– A prickle of porcupines
– An unkindness of ravens
– A crash of rhinoceroses
– A shiver of sharks
– A scurry of squirrels
– An affliction of starlings
– A streak of tigers
– A knot of toads
– A gam of whales
– A business of weasels


Wikipedia on the history of nouns of assembly:

The tradition of using “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” — collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals — stems from an English hunting tradition of the late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It is marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. These elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions. The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) distinguished three types of droppings of animals, and three different terms for herds of animals. Gaston Phoebus (14th c.) had five terms for droppings of animals, which were extended to seven in the Master of the Game (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to ca. 1452 under the heading of termis of venery &c. extends to 70 items, and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items, many of which, even though introduced by the compaynys of beestys and fowlys, do not relate to venery but to human groups and professions and are clearly humorous. (a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, a Fightyng of beggers, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women, a Disworship of Scottis etc.)

The Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and was reprinted frequently. Gervase Markham edited and commented on the list in his The Gentleman’s Academic in 1595. The book’s popularity had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon, even though they have long ceased to have any practical application. Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.The popularity of these terms in the early modern and modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous light-hearted, humorous or “facetious” collective nouns.


5 most common nouns: the answer is in time (and not in Black Friday)

According to Wikipedia, these are the five most commonly used nouns in the English language:

  1. time
  2. person
  3. year
  4. way
  5. day

And according to the The Reading Teachers Book of Lists, the five most common nouns are:  1) word 2) time 3) number 4) way 5)  people.

Isn’t it interesting that in both cases the nouns are all abstract (with the exception of person/people, which is almost on the abstract spectrum)? And perhaps more significantly: “time” makes both lists – and is represented by three separate words in Wikipedia’s rankings (“time”, “year”, “day”).

So, for us mortals – at least for those of us who speak English – time is never far from our minds and lips. Or could it be simply that there are fewer words in the English language to describe units of time and time itself, whereas perhaps in other areas of our waking lives we have a greater vocabulary to express particular concepts?

It’s reassuring to discover that even in this world of money and materialism – when human souls are bold enough to risk their lives for a flat-screen TV – it is still time that appears to be our most  significant commodity.



The five most common nouns

Take a guess:  what do you think are the five most commonly used nouns in the English language? Not articles, pronouns, or conjunctions, but good old-fashioned nouns.

I took my own guess. At the top of my list was “home” – a place that we all spend a lot of time in, going to, and planning our lives around. My teenage daughter suggested “phone”: clearly an object that features largely in so many people’s minds these days. I wondered if “bed” — another human anchor — might be in the list:.

What do you think are the five most commonly used nouns?

Slightly surprising answers – and discussion – tomorrow… (Or, if you can’t wait until then, try Google.)