The Origin of Commercial and Business Names

From old family names to invented names

One early April day several years ago, I went to Jim Johnson's office to get my taxes done.  On the lawn of the old Cape Cod converted into a business office there was a large sign, “The Brass Tax Service.  Jim Johnson, Tax Consultant, CPA.”  After Jim greeted me and led me to his office, I asked, “How did you come up with a name like The Brass Tax Service?”

He placed his Parker pen on a legal pad and tapped the keys of his Compaq computer.  “Well, when I started out it was called Johnson's Tax Service.”

I handed him my stack of receipts.  “What was wrong with that name?”

“We didn't do too well.  I figured it must be the name.  So the next year I adopted JTS.  You know, the initials, so that it would sound like some big corporation.”

“But JTS could stand for anything.”

“So I found out.  That year business was even worse.  The third year my wife suggested AmFinCo.  That wasn't any better.  So I went to one of those companies that creates names for a price, and they came up with this one with the 'brass' pun in it.  What do you think?”

“You CPA's are such clowns,” I said, avoiding an answer.

After he did his juggling act with my numbers, he handed me a stack of forms and a Bic.  “Put your John Hancock on these.”  I scribbled my name and paid him with Visa.

As he walked me to the door, I asked, “So, has business picked up since you became The Brass Tax Service?”

“I'm not sure,” he replied.  “But more people are coming to the door.”

“What do you mean?”

“I had one guy who wanted to buy some three penny nails.  And a couple of weeks ago someone hauled an old stuffed chair in here so that we could re-upholster it for him.”

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The roar of a bull moose

Ah, well. That poor gent with the stuffed chair must have been a poor speller. Or maybe he just became inured by the epidemic of intentional misspellings found on so many commercial products. Glo-Lite, Buy-Rite, Sta-Klear, SnoBol… so why not Brass Tax?

But Jim was right about his prior shingle names. Johnson's Tax Service was as distinctive as a leaf on a tree, and JTS as significant as the tracks in a chicken coop. And AmFinCo only needs to be pronounced to know why it was not a good choice. Yet the name he bought, The Brass Tax Service, hardly seemed better. Although there was a reference to what happens at that place and the name was lighthearted, the attempted humor introduced a red herring. He might as well called the business Heart-O-Tax.

It boggles the mind pondering the thousands of entrepreneurs trying to snatch the public's attention with the labels of their businesses or their products. Each hopes to have chosen a “good” name, one that will lure customers and generate profits. The alternatives are infinite. Does one go with a descriptive designation, a joke, an icon, an acronym, imagery, or does one just make up a name — like Toronado or Nextel? Or does it really matter? Does a name have to be distinctive, appropriate or even likable in order for a company or product to succeed?

The simplest thing to do is use one's own name, like Morton, Schwinn, or Daimler. Like the roar of a bull moose or the fanning of peacock feathers, that is what men of commerce did in the olden days. Personal surnames like Buick, Pabst, and Smuckers earned the respect of the marketplace even though, let's face it, they sound silly.

As a result, like a cemetery, the field of commercial names is replete with cold monuments to the entrepreneurs of the past. Staid surnames like Ford, Toyota and Kellogg are carved into old company trademarks with the stylistic charm of a family crest on a mausoleum. It continues today with Turner, Siemens and Dell.

On the other hand women entrepreneurs seldom use their surname in their company or product names. (We are not talking Betty Crocker here — that was an invention of a male dominated ad corp... the Crocker part after a early male corporate director.) When starting a small business they will use their first names as often as men use their last names because, guess what, females are less loyal to their male surnames. Thus we find Janet's Floral as opposed to MacDowell's Flower Shop, and Brenda's Dance Academy vs. Demellio School of Dance, and Kathy's Travel Agency vs. Thompson Travel & Tours. Of course when all the young girls named Riley, Kelly, Taylor, and Bailey grow up and start their own businesses the proprietor's sex won't be so obvious.

Perhaps it is less prideful if one uses only part of the name, as Sam Walton did when he renamed his Ben Franklin 5 and 10 store to Wal-Mart Discount City in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. Many entrepreneurs have done the same. Brothers Stephen and Alan Hassenfeld named their toy company using less than a third of their surname when they came up with Hasbro. When Charles Lazarus took control of Interstate Stores in 1974 he used the last part of his surname to christen it Toys 'R' Us. (It would have been more grammatical if he had been named Charles Lazarwe.)

Like most professionals, lawyers traditionally use surnames to label their business. In the good old days it was easy to start a practice alone and give it your name, like Craspius Pounders, Attorney at Law. But in these urbane times, professionals go into partnerships and the business name grows until it has that air of competence, becoming something ungainly like Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. You would think these purveyors of pompous language would spell out the L.L.P. part also.

Names of law firms lend themselves easily to humor, as with the invention of the law firm Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe. The late comedian Henny Youngman related how a client phoned a family law practice and was greeted with “Attorneys Klein, Klein, and Klein. Can I help you?” “Yes. Is Mr. Klein available?” the caller asked. “Sorry, he's on another line,” was the answer. “Well, then could I speak with Mr. Klein?” “Sorry, he's out of town.” “Then please let me talk to Mr. Klein?” “Speaking.”

Sometimes business patronymics are not always suited for the company's products. I vaguely remember the confusion I experienced as a child upon first hearing that my mother had gotten a Singer Sewing Machine; I expected to hear a soprano voice whenever she used it. Likewise for Pullman Coach (some guy is pulling the coach?), Oldsmobile (who wants an old car?), and Dr. Pepper soda (is there a Dr. Jalapeño soda, too?)

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Beyond the Stratosphere

In today's commercial world personal names are rarely used to label businesses or products. Descriptive names are the vogue like E-Trade, Tuffy Mufflers, and Earthlink. But such names have been around since Ye Olde Candle Shoppe in the Middle Ages. And back in 1859 The Great American Tea Company prospered by purchasing tea directly from Chinese tea plantations. In 1870 it became The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and in 1912 they opened their first grocery store using the now familiar name of A & P.

In 1896 Herman Hollerith started a business he called the Tabulating Machine Company. Then in 1911 Charles R. Flint, a noted trust organizer, combined the company with two others, Computing Scale Co. of America and International Time Recording Co., and called the merger Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co., or C-T-R. In 1924 to reflect its growing worldwide presence, Thomas J. Watson changed the name to International Business Machines Corp. Now it is known simply as IBM, a trademark so renowned that hardly anyone would take the tri-letter icon to be an answer to the question, “Who be you?”

Using the name of heroes has long been popular, like Ben Franklin Retail Stores, Robin Hood Flour and Lincoln automobiles. Late in the 19th century, between Grover Cleveland's two separate presidential terms, Curtis Candy developed a new nut roll initially called Kandy Kake. Unhappy with that name the company held a contest and one of its employees proposed calling it after the pet name of the Clevelands' newly born daughter. And so the candy bar became Baby Ruth. Regardless, many kids grew up believing it was named after a famous baseball player.

By the late 1950s Wolverine Worldwide, maker of the casual Hush Puppy shoes, was taking a casual approach to naming its various shoe styles after the names of employees' pets, including Duke, Duchess, Bozo, and Fritzi. Then in the early 1990s they went on to use the names of characters from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show, commissioning shoes named the Boss, the Lee, and a two-toned golf shoe called the Hazzard.

Such casual naming may have fit the decor of the shoe, but in today's complex society many believe in a more systematic approach to naming. Firms like Beyond Marketing Strategies, Namestormers, and Namelab are in the business of inventing “great names” using scientific methods. Any of these firms will study the client's business and products, generate dozens of name candidates, test them on people, and finally select the most appealing — like Lucent or Amoco. They will even register the name with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office and design an accompanying logo, in some cases for as little as $70,000.

These firms believe strongly, guess what, that choosing the right name is very important to profitability. They say a “great name” must: a) be memorable; b) be relatively short; c) be descriptive; d) not create confusion; e) be understood internationally.

One of these companies that I mentioned above, what was it called… Beyond the Stratosphere, or Beyond Merchandising something — I cannot remember, but I know it was a long name… I think they market stuff, or go beyond strategies, or something. Anyway, this company obviously took its name before it developed its philosophy. Not only is their moniker long and meaningless, it takes a great deal of effort to say. Even the acronym BMs would be better. And what is with this “beyond” stuff? Can you imagine a hospital called Beyond Hope?

In any case you would think that their list of attributes for a great name makes good sense. But some products and companies thumbed their names at this wisdom and still did quite well. Let us consider some commercial names that have defied the expert advice.

Be memorable. WD40 (or is it DW40, or WP28) is not only not memorable, it is down right forgettable — until advertising tattoos it to your brain. And don't you think General Motors is a yawner?

Be short. Ignoring this suggestion did not hurt the sales success of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Then there is Abercrombie and Fitch, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. And what about Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes? If short is better why did it not become Sufrakes or KSFF? (Actually, the brand name did get shorter when the company dropped the tainted word "sugar".)

Be descriptive. What is so descriptive about the companies called Allstate, Amazon, Google? Would you expect to buy archery paraphernalia at Target Stores.

Avoid confusion. Surely, what could be more confusing than the nonsense names of pain relievers like Advil, Paracetamol, Ecotrin, ad Nausetrin? At one time we couldn't remember who had the blimp, Goodyear or the now defunct Goodrich? And did you know Eggo is a cereal?

Have international meaning. The liquor name Irish Mist in Germany means “Irish manure.” What do you suppose Mazda means? And how does Grecian Formula go over in Ankara, Turkey?

Fowl, Beef & Fish

I say forget these criteria and just go for clever. Pick a name like PaperMate, DirectTV, Roach Hotel, of Wheaties. Clever names often have more than one meaning. There is a fast food chain in Texas named Souper Salad. Besides the obvious reference to the kind of food they serve and the alliterated culinary question “Soup or Salad,” there is also the boastful pun “super salad.”

Clever Commercial Names



  Dew Drop Inn

  Great Expectations




  Sleep Inn (now Choice Hotels)

  Souper Salad

  The Way We Wore

  OptiMall (Romanian)

  Buy Way (defunct)



  motel lodging

  maternity store

  golf course

  child care center

  pet supply store


  fast food restaurant

  vintage clothes shop

  eye glasses company

  department store

There was a company in Georgia renting all kinds of equipment called RENTOWN which looks like Rent Town, an apt description. But it also suggests another of their services, rent-to-own, i.e., selling leased equipment. Alas, the store is no longer. A clever name for a reproduction store, like Fed Ex's Kinko would be Copy Copy. But so would Copy Copy Copy... and Copy Copy Copy Copy and so would... never mind. If you had to name a large vehicle that was as easy to drive as a car, yet had the capacity of a van, what would you call it? A car, a van… how about Caravan? Now here is a name that not only conveys its dual nature but also the imagery of serious traveling.

There are many such clever names, but I offer you only a small list in the table to the right. Of course clever is not always good. You would not want to call a funeral home Dead Reckoning, a mental health center Crazy For You, or an adult nursing home Senior Moments. (For more of these, see Silly Business Names.)

If not clever, than at least simple and honest as with Swift Transportation. Then there is TWO MEN AND A TRUCK, a candid name as charming as the phrase “a boy and his dog.” Unfortunately as this moving company grew from its humble origin into a national franchise the truth of its name became an advertising mirage. Yet the name was so appealing that another entrepreneur started Two Men & A Chipper, another Two Men & A Saw, another Three Men & A Tenor, and another One Man & A Van. Who knows, we may someday hire a maid from the franchised corporation An Old Lady & A Mop, Inc.

Eateries and pubs have adopted the English custom of visually curious, if irrelevant, names. In Great Britain they have the Flying Horse, Pig and Whistle, and Cromwell's Head. The practice came to the United States, and we have Four Seasons, Ruby Tuesday, and Blue Coyote Grill.

There was a trend at one time for restaurant owners to pick bing-bong names, like Steak and Ale. The motif swung to paired meat and fish allusions with either alliteration or rhyme, as in Surf and Turf, Fin and Fur, and Sod and Sea. I have to admit, there is poetry in Hart and Sole and rhythm in The Boar and Gill Bar and Grill. If bird is on the menu, then the possibilities include Fin, Feather and Fur, and Bird and Beast but probably not Fowl, Beef and Fish, if you hear what I mean. The vegans have Fruits and Roots, Greens and Beans, and Ladle, Leaf and Loaf. In all cases, shirt and shoes required.

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Gates and Windows

So many new products and companies have erupted into the public arena in the last decade that it is not easy to find a unique name, let alone a good name, even with the help of professional name makers. (By one estimate, 50 new products are introduced each day.) Most of the new names seem like distorted echoes of so many other names, all using common elements in varying arrangements, such as “omni,” “max,” “ultra,” and “trans.” The food industry likes “free,” “health,” and “diet.”

The computer companies are partial to the syllables “inter,” “micro,” “comp,” “ware,” “net” and “app.” By some unofficial estimates over one million products and companies have as part of their name the word “web,” another 200,000 companies or products use “micro,” and uncounted others have “soft” in them. Not so “micro” anymore the software giant Microsoft ought to rise above the crowd and rename itself to something more appropriate, like Gates & Windows. The new social media companies are going with garbled names... like Twitter, Pinterest, and Bebo. Just take a look at the imaginative names.

If you are not interested in cute or clever but want a serious, if meaningless label, try the Business Name Generator shown here. Simply take two or three word chunks (shall we call them protonyms) from each column and combine them in any order. Of course Unisys is already taken, as is OmniMax, MicroCom, Sysco and Transcorp. How do you like MicroMax or MaxiPan?

Companies of course do change names, like Wooster Rubber Co. which became Rubbermaid Inc. and American Brake Shoe Co. which became Abex. For a variety of reasons each year hundreds of businesses endure the cost of changing their letterhead.

For example, National Biscuit Company became Nabisco when they started to turn out more than biscuits. Long ago everybody was calling The Texas Company simply Texaco, so in 1957 the board yielded to popular usage and made it official. L. A. Young, Spring & Wire Corp. in Detroit was losing a lot of mail to Los Angeles so management dropped the L. A. Trying to escape its tobacco legacy and litigation Philip Morris Co. became Altria Group, Inc. In 2003 after the internet bubble burst, AOL Time Warner dropped the once promising initials of its internet provider and returned to Time Warner ending up at Verizon. And the once high-flying WorldCom Inc. decided after bankruptcy in 2001 that it would take back its former label of MCI and then joined Verizon Communications.

In 1849, Elon Farnsworth founded the Detroit Savings Fund Institute and on the first day of business it took in $41 in deposits. The company name changed to The Detroit Savings Bank in 1871. Then in 1936, it became The Detroit Bank. Joining with several other local banks in 1956 the business was called The Detroit Bank & Trust Company. In 1973 the name was changed to DETROITBANK Corporation. Finally in 1982, it became Comerica. You could say they like to make change.

Kooks To Go

Sometimes people pick business names that, at first, seem like gems but upon closer inspection are really lumps of coal. For example, a couple of years ago I noticed a restaurant named The Pig Pit. Curiosity made me go in. I found the place aptly named. Not surprisingly they soon went out of business. (Apparently there is a Pig Pit eatery thriving in Albany, NY. Makes you wonder.)

There is a pet food store called Petco. Brief and brisk, to be sure, but there is something about the name — kind of like Amalgamated Teddy Bears — that makes you wonder if the proprietors would put on the brakes for a cat in the road. In Michigan, there is a grocery retailer named Spartan Stores. How well stocked would you expect their shelves to be? And believe it or not, in Nova Scotia there is a fast food chicken place called Lick-A-Chick.

I used to think ShopRite was just another numb name trying to capture my attention with a misspelling. Then it dawned on me that “rite” meant “ritual”. Maybe they were saying that shopping there is a divine event, a glorious ceremony. The implied meaning of “correct” shopping was merely a secondary interpretation. “Shop Ritual” was the way to look at it. Perhaps this was a good name after all. Nah — they meant it as a dumb misspelling.

I found a lot of companies that do not care to write “rite” right, like Roll Rite, GoRite, Park Rite, Chill Rite and a Walk Rite. Would you believe that a company called Maid Rite sells meat? The weirdest I discovered were the many companies employing the Dun-Rite label, everything from playgrounds to kitchen cabinets... but none, as one might guess, a collection agency. I wonder if we will ever see an electronic dictionary called Spell-Rite?

Rite Aid is not a place to get assistance in the rituals of religion, but rather a national chain of convenience stores. Interestingly this prosperous business was begun by one Alex Grass in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1962 as the Thrif D Discount Center. In 1968 the name was changed because the board of directors wanted to get it rite.

Misspelled business names are popular, like Kwik Kar Wash, StaTru, Tastee Freez, and VuLite. (Incidentally, the pervasive use of the once non-word “lite” has now qualified it for inclusion in most dictionaries.) Yet intentional misspellings and use of homonyms do have their limitations. For example, would you eat at Stake & Ail? Or send your grandmother to the Green Achers Senior Center? Or buy some Home Groan Vegetables? Or hire a chef from Kooks-To-Go? (For more, see Silly Business Names.)

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“Hair” of respectability

A play on words can sometimes produce a good name, like Wee Care for a day care center, but often all you get is a lousy pun, like the cat product Goody Two Chews. Wok Around the Clock for a Chinese restaurant, OptomEyes as the name for an eyeglass store, and Prints Charming for a photo shop are also cute — the first time. Lady Begood seems a quaint name for a pet shop (now defunct,) but it might easily be used for an escort service.

barber shop pole

A good example of an atrocious pun name is Wherehouse Records. Not only is there is no connection between “where” and records but at first glance “wherehouse” looks more like “whorehouse” than “warehouse.” Besides, the words “where” and “ware” are not even homonyms. Only slightly better is the name chosen for the clothing store Men's Wearhouse Fashions. Undoubtedly “somewear” in the world there are (or will be) fashion shops named Wear-Abouts, WearEver, Wear-With-All, and Wear-On-Earth.

Barbers and cosmetologists are the absolute aces when it comes to pun names. What do you call a barber shop in an airport concourse? The Hair Port, of course. Any phrase you can think of that can be twisted into a scalp reference probably already has been adopted by some hair place somewhere. Did you say Mane Street? Taken. Hair-O-Dynamics? Already owned. Shear Luck? Done. In my table, Funny Barbershop and Hair Salon Names, I dare to share only a few of the hair-brained names I have come across. I wonder if there is a barbershop in the country called Kut-Rite. No, I guess it just does not have the “hair” of respectability.

American General

If picking a bad name is curious, then taking a good name and abbreviating it is mystifying. It is understandable when a company with a tofu name like Metro Goldwin Mayer promotes itself as MGM, or when one with a passè logo such as Radio Corporation of America advertises itself as RCA. But if you have a sparkling and exciting name, why abandon it for bland and cryptic letters?

In 1930, a new gasoline station in Indianapolis hung out a sign with two vivid words describing its product: “crystal” evoking thoughts of purity, crispness, clarity, and endurance; and “flash” causing visions of speed, light, and power. Over the decades Crystal Flash grew throughout the South and Midwest. In spite of their success with that name the company erased it from its fueling stations signs and adopted a barren pair of consonants, CF (with the corporate name as Crystal Flash Energy. The initials were short-lived, and the words are back.) Consolidated Freightways would have been more justified in making that change to CF. But even then, would not these letters also stand for “cold fusion” or “cystic fibrosis?”

Likewise a fast food company turned its back on the three words that brought it international fame: “Kentucky”, a folksy place; “fried”, mouth watering; “chicken”, a food everyone but vegans seems to enjoy. Now all that beckon us is a tasteless trinity of letters, KFC. Okay, so the “fried” part sounded unhealthy, or they are telling us they sell more than just chicken. A New Yorker cartoon shows a couple at the door of a fast food restaurant with the sign KFO, and one of the patrons says to the other, “I think it stands for 'ostrich'.”

When the phone giant SBC, formerly Southern Bell Company, merged with Ameritech it became SBC Ameritech. In 2003 the execs decided to unburden the name, so they tossed the Ameritech part to become SBC again, and finally they joined back up again with mother AT&T. How could they junk the best part of their name, Ameri-? Maybe they plan on expanding into Libya.

There are a lot of stodgy business names that might as well be abbreviated. They contain tiresome words like General, National, Federated, United, and International. These corporate cognomens yell out to the world “we have no imagination!” Look at all the “general” giants: General Motors, General Electric, General Tire, General Mills, and General Foods. What exactly does “general” mean in any of these names? Does it mean “in general, we manufacture all kinds of stuff?” Or does it declare high rank, as in “General, the troops have all deserted?” Neither interpretation seems particularly compelling. But generally, who cares?

Another corporate favorite in the United States is “American”, as in American Financing, American Express, and American Fidelity. The word is so favored that companies will take even a portion of it, like AmeriTrade, Amerijet, Amerigas, Amerigroup, and many others. Don't be surprise to some day see a fast food place called AmeriChicken or a travel agency named Ameri-Go-Round.

If you like names with “General” or “American” in them, you will love General American, a life insurance company now owned by MetLife, General American Investors, and American General Media.

Then there are all those companies that want to be “first”. Check the Yellow Pages (or Google it) and you will see dozens of them. I found First City Corp, First Choice Bank, First American, First General, among others. Checking under “second” all I found was a used-items store named Second Time Around. Nothing under “third” or “fourth”, but under “last” there were numerous Last Call Lounges.

It seems fitting that banks and financial institutions would like numbers in their names, like Bank One and First National. One such institution decided that since one number was good, two would be better. In 1871, the Bank of the Ohio Valley was purchased by the Third National Bank, and then at the turn of the 19th century they joined up with the Fifth National Bank to become known as the Fifth Third Bank. In 1975 the company incorporated as Fifth Third Bancorp and finally is now just Fifth Third Bank. How about a bank called First Four Thirds Bank?

Napalm Video

Most of us know a commercial name means nothing as far as our satisfaction with the business or product. After all, the customers did not vote the name Best Buy for the discount appliance store, or Healthy Choice for the frozen dinners. Those names were astutely selected by the clever marketing people to trick us into buying their products whenever we shop in a coma.

Yet there are names out there that might make you hesitate, if just for a second. For example, what are they going to do to your car at Top Gun Car Wash? Exactly what kind of activity went on at Chemical Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.)? Hasn't the owner of the restaurant The Three Chefs heard that old saying? These examples are (were) all real business names. And no doubt someday someone will name a law firm Notable Attorneys not realizing it could be read as Not Able Attorneys, or any of the other silly names shown in the table called Silly Business Names. But then again who would have thought a startup car rental company could take the obviously absurd name of RentAWreck and succeed?

Bazooka Gum

Is it Bazooka Gum or a Gun?

Sometimes a name will bring success in spite of its questionable origin. Kids still eagerly buy the long popular bubble gum named Bazooka without visualizing what a similarly named rocket launcher could do to a tank and the men inside — well, maybe the boys do. Oddly enough, that grim name arose innocently in 1905 in Arkansas as the name of a crude trombone made from pipes and a funnel. The farcical instrument was adopted by comedian Bob Burns in the 1930s. “Bazoo” was local slang for a loud noise. Then in 1943, an army major from those parts applied the name to the rocket launcher because it resembled that musical instrument. In 1953, the Topps Company brought out its bubble gum and named it after the instrument, so they say. So what kid has a toy soldier playing a bazooka?

Did anybody care that Blockbuster Video capitalized on the renown of a horrendous implement of war, the gigantic eight ton bomb of World War II that was so destructive it decimated a city block? Apparently not... though the company did get blown out of the water by streaming videos on the internet. Yet would they have ever considered the name Napalm Video? Not a pretty picture, is it?

Chevrolet introduced the Nova not knowing or caring that the word in Spanish meant “does not go” and still the car was a success. And Andrè Citroën gave his automobile company his name even though the Dutch name translates to “lemon.”

Just as the makers of Haagen-Dazs invented a foreign phrase to give their ice cream a touch of wholesomeness, so businesses in other countries use English in naming their products to convey American affluence and high living. But the results can be silly. For example, there is Cat Wetty, Japanese moistened hand towels; Colon Plus, a Spanish detergent; Kolic, Japanese mineral water; Polio, a Czechoslovakian laundry detergent; Superglans, Netherlands car wax; Swine, Chinese chocolates; and Zit, a Greek soft drink.

Envision some toilet paper

Future floor wax

Business names usually have some relevance to the enterprise. Product names however know no bounds. They are often mere words unrelated in any way to the product, as with Prelude, Proud, Wishbone, Rely, and Promise. Total is very popular. Nationally it is a gasoline brand, a cereal, and a toothpaste.

These words may be pleasant enough, but think about it — is there even a remote link between floor wax and the Future? Between flour and Pioneer? Between cars and Saturn? Sometimes these “dictionary names” can cause confusion in communication, as when a stock boy stacking laundry detergent yells to the store manager, “Has the Tide come in yet?” Or the wife who tells her husband about the Storm she ran into.

Envision tissue

The source for these single word names has almost dried up as corporations scramble to copyright the last of the dictionary gems regardless how inappropriate they may be for a product. For example, “pledge” may be a word brimming with trust and expectation — but really, the name of a margarine — or furniture wax? They should have saved it for a mouth wash or laxative — there is where you want trusting assurance. Then there is Envision, a brand of bathroom tissue — toilet paper, to be more precise. What exactly do you suppose the makers of this product wish you to envision? I just know one of these days we are going to hear at the dinner table, “Pass the Entirety, please,” or in the locker room, “Can I borrow your Tolerance?”

But the fact that there is shortage of good common words for names is not really a problem. There are vastly more products with made up names than any other kind. Just as personal names constitute the majority of business names, so made up names by far dominate product labels. Giant IBM has copyrights and trademarks to hundreds of such made up names, among them these gems: Ingeni, DualStor, Hektowriter, Polyfem, Ultimotion, Cryptolope, Alacra, Multiprise, Magstar, Timation, and Selectric.

Of these, Selectric was so successful that it became synonymous with the word typewriter. Only the computer revolution and the near extinction of all typewriters kept it from joining the parade of other proprietary names, like zipper, aspirin and laundromat that eventually lost their capitalization and found a listing in the dictionary as ordinary words.

When does a name become a common word? When the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office says so. To them a protected brand name, or trademark, is defined as “any word, name, symbol or device or any combination thereof adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify his goods and distinguish them from those manufactured or sold by others.” In 1962, for example, King Seely lost trademark rights to the brand name “thermos” when the Trademark Office survey showed that 68% of the populace thought that the word referred to any vacuum insulted bottle. Now it is a 100%.

One of the oldest and most popular trademark names in the United States never became a generic word, but it did become a favorite label for all kinds of things. It started after William Underwood made his fortune selling food in sealed tins to the pioneers during the gold rush years. One of his canned products was a highly spiced meat cured by a process called deviling. In his 1870 advertising campaign, he adopted a red demonic figure as his logo. The Red Devil brand became so popular that others copied it for products such as hot sauce, paint, tools, lye, ale, and whatnot. It became a town in Alaska, a mine in Nevada, and countless sports teams and saloons. Yet that famous meat brand has been lost in the shuffle of businesses as Underwood's company was sold to Pet Food which was bought by the Pillsbury Company which was acquired by Grand Metropolitan in the UK which merged with Guiness to become Diageo PLC.

The classic made up name is Kodak, invented by George Eastman who liked the letter “k.” This confirms what researchers found — men prefer the harsher sounds of “k” as in Corvette, while women are partial to the soft sounds of “sh” as in Charmin and Chanel. “K” is ordinarily an uncommon letter in English, and as such it provides the spark to common names as with Kresge's K-Mart, Chrysler's K cars of the 1970s, Special K cereal, the Circle K convenience stores, Kinko's copies, Kleenex tissues, and all those other klever and kuet names.

Including the letters X and Z in a name seems to be the rage for medicinal products like Prozac, Xanax, Zocor, Xalatan, Zantac, Xeloda, x-cetera. X-cuse me, I cannot prove it, but my guess is that such x-otic names either appeal to our subconscious romance with the alchemy of the days of Excalibur, the extraordinary elixirs of the patent medicine man, or even the exciting experiments of early pharmaceutics.

Just as exotic as Xs and Zs are numbers and so it is not surprising to find them in commercial names, like A1 Sauce, K9 Kennels and 3M Corporation. Sometimes the numbers seem arbitrary as in 7-Up soda, 409 detergent and Motel 6 (what, only six rooms?), and sometimes they have a meaning that is part of the message as with 2000 Flushes, One-Hour Photos, 3 in 1 Oil, and Four Seasons Travel. Often the chosen numbers have some meaning quite apart from the name they are embedded in. For example, should you feel patriotic if you patronize a 76 gasoline station? Or are you lucky if you find a 7-Eleven store?

Firebird or a Lamborghini

AMC Gremlin

AMC Gremlin in the 70s

The search for the “great name” goes on. What began in the infancy of capitalism as the mindless attachment of personal names to businesses and products has blossomed into a language kaleidoscope, a profusion of names spanning a spectrum of spectrums, from classic to cute, poetic to prosaic, clear to cryptic, pious to the profane, clever to corny.

But does it really matter? Look at the automobile industry and judge for yourself. Could anyone have ever guessed in the 1940s that a name like Mitsubishi could be successfully affixed to the trunk of a car in the United States? Would the Edsel have been a hit if it had been called the Mustang? Was it the Gremlin or the Javelin that did in American Motors? Would you rather own a Mustang or a Lamborghini?

I think of poor Jim Johnson and his tax business, struggling to get the name right. He thought he could buy a good name but in the end he realized he had to sell it, not only through advertising, but also with quality service and products. Some, like the name makers, think the name IS advertising. Maybe at first sight, or first sound, a clever name can get that first look from a potential customer, but like a pretty face it is not enough for a marriage. It may not even be enough for a first date. And like a white wedding gown, it says nothing about virtue.

So if you are looking for a good name my advice is to do a little serious cogitation, grab it from your gut, and spend the rest of your time on the object of your christening. Remember, you can not buy a good name — you have to sell it.

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