Think naming your baby is difficult? Try naming your newborn company. Your child may live to be 100, but a company can last for centuries.
and Colgate were founded under those names in 1802 and 1806, respectively. The largest, most enduring American companies are a fascinating playground for onomasticians—people who study names. There are eight basic categories of company name:
• Founders. Companies named for the man or woman behind the brand, or occasionally their offspring:
Mary Kay Cosmetics,
Ford Motor Co.
, Eli Lilly & Co., Wendy’s, the
, and thousands more.
• Plain vanilla. These names simply state what the companies make or do. Radio Corp. of America (later RCA) boasted one of the hottest stocks of the Roaring ’20s. Other companies of this type are
United Parcel Service,
International Business Machines
(IBM) and the Quaker Oats Co..
Kansas City Southern Railway, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC).
• Sleek and chic. Sexy, single-word handles are a favorite among tech titans:
paved the way;
• Two-into-one mashup. These companies’ names are neologisms that describe their business model in one word distilled from two. While they could be considered a species of the sleek and chic genus, this group deserves its own category for its creativity. Here we find such well-known businesses as
(heard of it?),
an insurance company for pets.
• Whimsy. The best of breed here is Tapestry, formerly Coach, which rebranded itself after its purchase of rivals Kate Spade and
Throw apparel makers
(a wholly fabricated name) and
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 100th power, or 1 followed by 100 zeros).
• Inspirational. Tesla, named for famed inventor Nikola Tesla, and
the Greek word for victory, paint visions of grandeur and outstanding achievement.
• Metaphor. This is my favorite group. Metaphorical company names are extremely rare but breathtakingly beautiful. Packaged seafood provider Chicken of the Sea is a prime example. Originally the name was a marketing slogan for the Van Camp Seafood Co. But it was so catchy they renamed the company shortly after its 1914 founding.
My favorite company name is also from this group. It sells a product used by men and women around the world and dates from 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 February 5, 2021, print edition.
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