I recently read an article in the BBC news, written by a New York journalist, about the use of puns in naming conventions. The general gist I took from it was that it wasn’t a great thing, although apologies to Sally Davies (the author) if this wasn’t her intention – and I don’t think she necessarily shares the negative view of puns. But it did start me thinking a bit more about this. You see, it is clear that we English like a pun based name or two. Word play is wealthy fodder for our British sense of humour. Indeed, I remember one particular 4 hour drive from Chester (Cheshire, England) to Reading (Berkshire, England) where my colleague and I got on to the subject of cow jokes. This quickly descended into an hour of relentless word play puns that probably demonstrated my low standards in comedy more than anything else. But nonetheless it was a couple of hours of enjoyable British fun.

There is no doubt that the British sense of humour is geared towards word play, and I don’t think it is limited to us Brits either. In her article, Sally Davies mentions a number of examples of pun related naming conventions; ‘Fish & Sip’ for a coffee and seafood place and ‘eyediology’ for an optician. Of course most people are familiar with the coffee shop ‘Central Perk’ from the sitcom Friends. But this has spread to the online world as well. Pinterest is a good example, where the principle of the site is implied in the play on the word ‘interest’. There are countless examples of this sort of thing out there, the app store is full of them.

The Merchant of Tennis The Cod Almighty

But why do we use wordplay? Well the simple answer is because it makes something more memorable. It makes a name standout from the others in the crowd. It adds a new semantic level to a name that triggers some sort of response in us, either emotional or humorous, that means we remember it. This technique also often means that the function of the place or site is also implied in the name and that serves to tell us a little more about the thing than we would otherwise know. And that is why it is useful. Take a company just down the road from where I work, Tibco. There slogan is “The power of now”. I drive past them everyday but I had no idea what it was they do because I cannot glean anything from their name. One day I looked them up and it turns out they produce real time event enabled infrastructure software. Now I know this “The power of now” does seem to make a little more sense, but it was only out of pedantic curiosity (and writing this article) that made we look them up. There was no natural curiosity, no inclination or implication about what they do and it didn’t trigger any sort of emotion in me (other than indifference).

Word play puns are part of our sense of humour, and they therefore serve as a great thing for us to consider when thinking of names for apps, services, software or even brands. It makes things more memorable, even if it isn’t funny, just practical. Twitter has made it’s own name mean something and now we all know what it means. Facebook implies an element of what it is in its name. Google is the one that shows this sort of approach the best. It is a wordplay from the mathematical term ‘googol’ meaning  a number that is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros and expressed as 10 100. For a company based in data it was a logical name choice. But now the noun has become so much more:

verb (used with object): often lowercase  – to search the Internet for information about (a person, topic, etc.): We googled the new applicant to check her background.

verb (used without object): often lowercase  – to use a search engine such as Google to find information, a Web site address,etc., on the Internet.

Of course it was no coincidence that Microsoft chose the word ‘Bing’, already a noun with onomatopoeic value, for their search engine , no doubt with the hope this too will become a verb. I suspect they will struggle to have the same success.

So what is my point? Mainly that the name of something is all important these days. With competition on and off line being higher than ever before having a strong name that works on more than one level is a great way to stand out of the crowd. This seems especially important in the app world, where having a ‘zingy’ name will be the difference between a lot of downloads and shares and disappearing into the ether, never to be heard of again. Of course this doesn’t take away the focus of developing something that is well thought through and designed.

In the end I love names that have multiple meanings and particularly ones that make me smile. They appeal to me, like they do to a lot of other people, and make me more interested in finding out more. Make someone smile and they will value you, but make sure that once you have them hooked that the service behind it is just as appealing!


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