Tag Archives: portmanteau

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)




Portmanteaux, neologisms, and malapropisms

Remember Bennifer? (And wonder why?)

Well, Bennifer — describing the then union between singer-actress Jennifer Lopez and actor Ben Affleck, and in effect creating a ‘composite identity’ of the two lovebirds — was one of the early examples of celebrity-name-meshing that’s now enjoying such a craze in Hollywood and beyond. (Other notable examples are Tomkat, Brangelina, and Billary. And this name-meshing can actually be traced back at least to the ’70s: there’s a scene in All the President’s Men in which the movie’s reporter-protagonists Woodward and Bernstein are referred to as “Woodstein”.)

Bennifer is a twist on the portmanteau: a linguistic blending of two or more words and their meanings into one new word with a composite definition. A good example of a portmanteau is brunch, which combines not just morphemes but also the meanings of its root words breakfast and lunch: ie. it describes a mid- to late-morning repast that combines in its menu typical fare of those respective meals. I have always thought that portmanteau was just a posh name for a suitcase (or a musical term — I guess that’s portamento), but my daughter’s boyfriend told me about its second and much more interesting definition during a discussion about acronyms (see previous post).

A marriage of French words meaning “carry” (porte) and “coat” (manteau), portmanteau had as its original and more  prosaic definition a large traveling bag or suitcase, usually made of leather,  that opens into two equal sections. The word was adopted by Lewis Carroll in the late 19th century to describe a new type of composite word that he invented especially for his poem Jabberwocky: slithy (combining “lithe and slimy”) and mimsy (“flimsy and miserable”) are two such words from his famous nonsense rhyme. Wikipedia describes how Carroll not only coined the new meaning for portmanteau but also explained his thinking in his most famous book and in another of his poems: “[In Through the Looking Glass] Humpty Dumpty explains the practice of combining words in various ways by telling Alice, ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ … In his introduction to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll uses “portmanteau” when discussing lexical selection: ‘Humpty Dumpty’s theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all. For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious”.”

Examples of portmanteaus in common modern usage are smog (smoke + fog), infomercial (information + commercial), advertorial (advertisement + editorial), motel (motor + hotel), and simulcast (simultaneous + broadcast). Pakistan, as well as being an Urdu word, combines the names of its constituent regions: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan. When the African countries Tanganyika and Zanzibar united in 1964, the resulting new republic was named Tanzania. Wikipedia is a portmanteau, melding the words “wiki” and “encyclopedia”.

Many portmanteaus (or portmanteaux, if we want to feel swanky and French) start off as neologisms; a neologism (from the Greek néo-, meaning “new”, and lógos, meaning “speech” or “word”) is a word or phrase that is (or has a new meaning) new to common and accepted usage. An example of a neologism/portmanteau is metrosexual (which combines “metropolitan” and “heterosexual”), an adjective cooked up in the 90s to refer to straight men who display stereotypically homosexual traits such as fashion-consciousness and the investment of time and energy in careful grooming and clothes-shopping. Another example of a relatively recent neologism — in which an old word has a new use — is “friend” used as a verb, as in “to friend someone on Facebook”.

A bit of light word association takes us via the neologism “Bushism” (describing an utterance of our linguistically accident-prone former president George W. Bush) to another type of word or expression founded on the use — or in this case the often unintentional misuse or mixing up — of other words and phrases: the malapropism. Probably the most famous Bushism-malapropism, which also seemed to be a portmanteau but will hopefully never be a neologism, is misunderestimate. This non-word, presumably meaning (if it were a real word) to severely underestimate, and an apparent concoction of misunderstand and underestimate, was used on no less than three occasions by President Bush…

And finally, please enjoy this cartoon published on the webcomic xkcd.com. Here, comedian and xkcd founder Randall Munroe illustrates in a brilliant parody — of linguists, Wikipedia, and anyone who writes or reads grammar blogs — how the online encyclopedia might present and define his own invented stunt word* malamanteau.

* a deliberately attention-seeking neologism