Think naming your baby is difficult? Try naming your fledgling business. Your child can live to be 100, but a business can last for centuries. DuPont and Colgate were founded under these names in 1802 and 1806, respectively. America’s largest and longest-lasting companies are a fascinating playground for onomasticians, people who study names. There are eight basic business name categories:
• Founders. Companies named after the man or woman behind the brand, or sometimes their offspring: Macy’s,
Mary Kay Cosmetics, Ford Motor Co.
Eli Lilly & Co., Wendy’s, the Boeing Co.
and thousands of others.
• Plain vanilla. These names simply indicate what the companies do or do. Radio Corp. of America (later RCA) had one of the hottest stocks of the Roaring Twenties. Other such companies are General Motors,
United Parcel Service, International Business Machines (IBM) and Quaker Oats Co..
South West Airlines,
Kansas City Southern Railway, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC).
• Sleek and classy. Sexy one-word handles are a favorite of tech titans: Apple,
Microsoft and Oracle led the way; Amazon,
Google and Twitter have followed suit.
• Two-in-one mashup. The names of these companies are neologisms that describe their business model in one word distilled from two. While they might be considered a classy, classy species, this group deserves its own category for its creativity. Here we find companies as well known as Netflix,
Snapchat, GameStop (have you heard of it?), Pinterest,
WhatsApp and Trupanion,
a pet insurance company.
• Fancy. Best of breed here is Tapestry, formerly Coach, which rebranded itself after its takeover from rivals Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. Throw apparel makers Lululemon (an entirely fabricated name) and Under Armor into this group. Restaurant chains TGI Friday’s and Ruby Tuesday share the category, as does Google, a misspelling of an obscure mathematical term (a googol is 10 to the power of 100, or 1 followed by 100 zeros).
• Inspiring. Tesla, named after famous inventor Nikola Tesla, and Nike,
the Greek word for victory, painting visions of greatness and outstanding achievement.
• Metaphor. It’s my favorite band. Metaphorical company names are extremely rare but breathtakingly beautiful. Packaged seafood supplier Chicken of the Sea is a prime example. Originally, the name was a marketing slogan for Van Camp Seafood Co. But it was so catchy that they renamed the company shortly after it was founded in 1914.
My favorite business name also belongs to this group. It sells a product used by men and women around the world and dates back to 1856. The paragon of poetic branding: Fruit of the Loom.
Mr. Opelka is a musical theater composer-lyricist.
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Appeared in the print edition of February 5, 2021.