Coining words and the caprice in names

Great little article about word coinage and naming by Steven Pinker in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, How do we come up with words? Here is a morsel, about the viral nature of baby names and the human tendency to want to be different, but not too different:

Many people assume these fads are inspired by celebrities (Marilyn Monroe made Marilyn popular) or social trends (biblical names are popular during religious revivals; androgynous names are a legacy of feminism). But sociologist Stanley Lieberson has pored through naming data and disproved every one of these hypotheses. The cause of baby names is other baby names. Parents have an ear for names that are a bit distinctive (as if to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice not to name your son William because every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William) without being too distinctive (only celebrities can get away with naming their children Moon Unit or Banjo). The trends arise when everyone tries to be moderately distinctive and ends up being moderately distinctive in the same way.

I love that advice from Sam Goldwyn. And that bit about everyone trying to be distinctive but ending up being “moderately distinctive in the same way” reminds me of the clusters of like names we see in nearly every industry. Take SUV names, for instance, where all the automakers tend to promote a “rugged individualist” theme, then serve up the same kind of names for their vehicles, often named to evoke either the idea of exploration — Blazer, Discovery, Expedition, Navigator, Safari, Scout, Tracker, Trooper — or of a mythic rugged western pioneer landscape — Montana, Rainier, Santa Fe, Sequoia, Sonoma, Tacoma, Tahoe, Yukon. So all of you rugged individualists out there looking express your distinctiveness through your choice of ride, these big beasts of cars are betraying that ideal by blending their names in with each other.

Also fascinating in this article is the idea that naming trends cannot be reliably predicted or engineered, because they are dependent upon the behavior of the masses, and that behavior is chaotic:

Pundits often treat a culture as if it were a superorganism that pursues goals and finds meaning, just like a person. But the fortunes of words, a cultural practice par excellence, don’t fit that model. Names change with the times, yet they don’t fulfill needs, don’t reflect other social trends and aren’t driven by role models or Madison Avenue. A “trend” is shorthand for the aggregate effects of millions of people making decisions while anticipating and reacting to the decisions made by others, and these dynamics can be stubbornly chaotic.

This unpredictability holds a lesson for our understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture — every fashion, ritual, common belief — must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, until it becomes endemic to a community. The caprice in names suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for other mores and customs.

Yes. Beware of “expert” opinion that labors to convince you that “scientific” explanations — linguistics, focus groups, trend analysis — trumps good old fashioned meaning, story, history, mythology, poetry, rhythm, and shared knowledge when considering names for companies, products, or services. Anything else is just putting ketchup on a potato bug.

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