Naming Significance

Been thinking about names again.

Partly because of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, CA firm specialized in naming research for brands.

As it so happens, my master’s thesis was on proper names. I mainly focused on anthroponyms (personal names) and toponyms (place names), but the connection is obvious between Lexicon’s work and what I have done in the past.

In the past, I have mostly worked in a semiotic framework. The discipline of semiotics has lost some of its mainstream prominence but semiotic approaches are in fact quite common in social sciences, humanities, and marketing. My own training in semiotics has helped me integrate language sciences and music studies with symbolic anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Calling myself a “semiotician” might not seem like an excellent strategy to get a good job. But my training in semiotics can be quite useful in many contexts.

Within semiotics, I have mostly focused on names and on music. My master’s thesis was on proper names used in Malian praise-songs and my Ph.D. dissertation has involved both names and music in those same praise-singing performance contexts. As it so happens, there are clear connections (in my mind) between proper names and some musical patterns used in those praise-songs. The significance of both types of signs goes beyond some simplified explanations of meaning.

From a semiotic perspective, names are simply fascinating. As verbal signs, they are deeply significant. Not just meaningful by virtue of an arbitrary (or partially motivated) connection with an object. But significant through a more complex process of semiosis. More than other verbal signs, names can evoke a complex reality on their own. They resonate in a specific context. And they are salient across language boundaries.

In the Bamanan-speaking performance contexts I’ve observed, proper names have special significance.  For instance, those who are praised are those who have made a name for themselves. Simply calling out someone’s last name is equivalent to praising that person. Mentioning a place name in a praise-singing performance is a way to refer to events which have taken place at that location, often requiring listeners to possess some priviledged information about those events. Naming someone is a way to make that person social. Someone’s first name can have a deep impact on their character. Given the social structure, it’s often important to live up to one’s name and maintain a good name for the family as a whole.

What’s more, names (and musical patterns) are more motivated than the typical linguistic sign. As such, names can more easily participate in sound symbolism than other words. In this, names can resemble onomatopoeia and ideophones (which happen to be more frequent in African languages than in other linguistic contexts). In fact, some names share with sound symbolism the presence of non-typical morphophonological features for the language in which they are used. For instance, some English-speakers try to pronounce my first name as it is in French (/alεksãdr/), which implies a sequence of sounds which isn’t typical in English. Of course, I tend to go by “Alex” and a lot of people use the English version of my name (and spell it “Alexander”). But the point remains that even my first name can have some features reminiscent of sound symbolism, when used in a different language.

Lots more that I’ve discussed in both my master’s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. Going back to this fascination for names is a way for me to tie some loose ends.

Quite stimulating.

What does it all have to do with brand names? Quite a lot, actually, and it’s easy to realize. As some experts in social marketing tend to say, personal names often act like personal brands. “Branding yourself” is a market-driven approach to making a name for yourself. In Mali, people talk about the “publicity” aspect of the performance events I have been studying. In different parts of Africa (and in Brazil), people literally pay for the priviledge of being mentioned in song, because these mentions can be quite advantageous as “personal branding and marketing.”

One thing which attracts me to Lexicon specifically is the emphasis on cross-cultural communication. For very obvious reasons, Lexicon needs to make sure that the brand names it designs can have appropriate effects in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. We can all think of cases in which brand names had negative connotations in a language other than the one in which they were designed. But Lexicon’s approach seems to go much further. Beyond preventing the branding faux-pas which can have very detrimental effects on the product’s adoption, Lexicon works on the deeper integration of names in diverse cultural contexts.

Since I chersih human diversity, I’m deeply moved by examples of cultural awareness. In any context.

7 thoughts on “Naming Significance”

  1. A thought-invoking post, especially for someone in the process of naming their first child. We have spent a great deal of time on this…how many names? Which languages to spell them in and pronounciation? Nicknames? Abbreviations? Last names? Family ties? All this and the song going through my head is “A boy named sue”…

  2. @RS Well, it is possible to overthink this. But one might say, a child will wear their name more consequentially than most products. Not to mention the psychological basis for the influence of names on success.
    In your case, I do understand the challenges you face. Catherine and I thought about some of the same challenges (but in reverse). I don’t really think there’s an easy solution.
    At the same, as per the “overthinking” comment, you can be sure that whichever name you choose, children often get to manage the way they’re named. Nicknames are particularly powerful during adolescence but they can work throughout life. We use them less among French-speakers but the tendency to go by your nickname is making its way into Québécois culture, IMHO.
    Also, if you try to think about all the resonance, connotations, and associations afforded a name, you’ll never find one which would be totally satisfying. You can think of something unpleasant associated with just any name. Finding one with which you’re comfortable is probably the best strategy.
    After all, you won’t be manufacturing your child. You’ll be nurturing a human being.

  3. This is interesting stuff. I have a whole series of random musings:

    Maybe I’m attuned because my family name is ‘Dyke’, but also due to being personally named ‘Carl’ yet apparently coming from a phonetic subculture in which it’s difficult to pronounce my own name properly (I have trouble with the rl and what I say sounds like ‘Paul’ to many people).

    But that’s nothing. I lived in Italy for two years as a kid and ‘Carl Dyke’ is an impossible name for Italians to pronounce even close to correctly, what with the hard stops at the end of both halves. So I just got used to accepting whatever friendly approximation other people could manage. There’s a whole sociology of taking offense to intercultural mispronunciation.

    So sometimes that seems to be arranged ‘on purpose’. My wife has a friend who worked at a pharmacy for a while. One day a woman submitted a prescription for her son, ‘Lemonjello’. When the prescription was called she came steaming up in high dudgeon: “My son’s name is NOT Lemon Jello, it’s (pr.) Lem’ Aan-Jhelloh.” So why’s he named that? She had a craving when she was pregnant.

    Another acquaintance works for state government. Part of her job is to visit hospitals and talk new mothers out of giving their newborns pretty names like (pr.) Sy’Phyllis and Gon’ Oria. (Sorry I don’t have pronunciation conventions at my fingertips but I think you get the point.)

    At the big Sociology conference a few years ago I was at a table with a young scholar who was working on naming conventions and looking at class-related patterns – strategies of naming. Seems that lower-class parents with little material support to offer are much more likely to use invented names or unusual spellings of common names in order to strategically gift their kids with ‘specialness’ (in fact, that naming convention is immediately diagnostic of low economic and educational status). This accounts for the chippiness noted earlier. Cadet branches of wealthy families tend to use the last names of the other side of the family as first names in order to try to reinforce the link. Conventional names conventionally spelled are characteristic of solidly established middle and upper middle class families, and of hopeful risers. Of course, immigrants at various stages and facilities of assimilation use or don’t use ‘homeland’ names to assert or discard the old identity. Etc.

    My ex-wife had a friend for a while who changed her last name to ‘Parker’, because her research indicated it was the least-often mistaken name in English. Along those lines, my ex-wife for many years hyphenated her last name (her choice). Finally she became sick of people asking her how to spell ‘hyphen’ and went back to her birth-family name.

    Of course the pressure on personal names has been greatly intensified by durkheimian individualization in modern society, entitlement, and low birth-rates with high investment in each child.

    Did I tell you my brother’s name is Alex? We called him that so consistently that for a brief moment when he was quite young we had him convinced his middle name was ‘Ander’.

    Re: nicknames, you’re right. Btw, my aunt calls my uncle Gary ‘Nick’ or ‘Nickie’ – it’s his Nickname…

    Sorry for the freak show, this is what you get for opening up closets with interesting stuff in! ;-p

  4. @CarlDyke
    I love opening closets! 😉
    And, as you know, I like anecdotes.
    In French, punny names are discussed with some frequency. Usually, it has to do with the combination of first and last names. Sometimes, they’re not perceived by the name-wearers (like the German-speaking “Otto Ritter” who was indeed «autoritaire»). Sometimes, it’s part of their persona (like «Rose Laplante»). A fun-loving friend of mine who was having a daughter after having his son Laurent was telling me he wanted to call his second-born «Jade» so that it would be «Laurent, Jade».
    There’s also a whole genre of humour, common in France and almost unknown in Quebec, about «M. et Mme X ont un enfant». Some are utterly absurd but some are plausible («Angela Bah», for instance). My feeling is that this type of pun (and, possibly, the whole French thing we have for puns) has a lot to do with the atypical nature of French prosody. Contrary to popular belief, French doesn’t have word stress. So it’s pretty easy to reparse strings across word boundaries (in this case, between first and last name). Not to mention that the semantic meaning of many French surnames remains legible.

    Your thoughts on sociological issues are well-taken and that’s where Mr. Quirkology seemed to be going. But, partly because of Lexicon, I’m thinking more about cultural issues (which often overlap with the negotiation of social identity but not necessarily with social status). Your mention of invented names reminds me of a common phenomenon in some African-American cultural contexts. Apart from the “social class” angle (hey, you’re the one named “Carl”), I perceive a specific attitude toward naming which makes a lot of sense in a given worldview. Kind of like the practise of giving names with negative connotations to children who followed a stillborn baby (so as to ward off evil). Or the practise of naming a baby like her/his grandparent to strengthen the bond between the two individuals. Even if the grandparent is alive when the child is born, that child can be conceived as an avatar of the grandparent. Or even just the use of the name «René(e)» for the child born after a miscarriage… And the whole thing about siblings being called similar names (Nat, Pat, and Cat).
    Oh, and BTW… At least until fairly recently, the French government had a finite list of first names which could be given to French babies. «Merise» was one but «Cerise» wasn’t. I think all of those names had to be the names of Catholic Saints. In France, someone’s «fête» is supposed to be that person’s Saint’s day. A birthday is «anniversaire» and implies another celebration. (In Quebec, we say «fête» for birthday and we don’t have the Saint’s day practise.) A number of people from the colonies have been using the calendar to pick up first names. Some of those born on July 14 were apparently called «Fête-Nat».
    Come to think of it, there might be more magazine pieces and websites devoted to first names among French-speakers than among Anglos. Maybe not but, clearly, first names are a big thing among Francophones.

    Going back to Lexicon… The research is about finding good names for products but also making sure that those names are culturally appropriate across languages. A large part of their work has been the creation of names. Either from scratch (Zune), using morphophonological principles of the main host language (Swiffer), or from a different language (Zima). But they also do many other things including research on how culturally appropriate those names may be in different contexts. This would probably be the part which could connect the most obviously with my background, but I can easily relate to many of their other spheres of activity, including “analogy excursions” and “attribute profiles.” For a semiotician with a background in the study of names, Lexicon could be a great place to put things together.

  5. On the corporate front I’m reminded of two infamous gaffes in U.S. marketing translation to Mexico: the Chevy Nova (no va, doesn’t go) and ‘got milk?’ which, translated literally as ‘tienes leche’, led to billboards colloquially asking all and sundry if they were lactating.

    My own current favorite stems from shopping for car tires recently, and I got some good groaning in class about the value of cultural literacy with it. My choice came down to two Japanese brands, Kumho and Falken. I really wanted some Falken tires, but what guy wouldn’t like a coupla Kumhos on his car? Of course, I could have had Falken tires on the front and Kumhos in the back, for that Falken Kumho setup, but eventually I had to make a Falken decision, and so I got me some awesome Falken tires.

    As for joke names mine’s pretty good. So glad my parents didn’t name me Richard. I keep my eye open for matches where my children and theirs should marry and hyphenate. Julie Beavers was a good prospect. I also tell my students that when they go into the world and make their fortune they should remember their favorite professor and make a generous gift to name a building after me at the university. A classroom building, or perhaps a dorm. For enough money they could name the whole place, although I’m not sure my friends in Admissions would appreciate the challenge this would pose.

    My mom wanted to have triplets and name them Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. Then again, when she dies she wants her ashes placed in a large sno-globe containing a scene of ancient Pompei with Vesuvius in the background.

  6. OK one more, since you mention my first name and class associations. When we were little my brother and I came to find out that names have meanings. He’s two years younger and there’s a rivalry. So Alex asked what his name meant and my parents said, “leader of men.” I then piped up to ask what my name meant. They squirmed, then said “man.” Oh, the scars of youth.

  7. @Carl
    Good ones.
    BTW, as I spell my name with -re, a number of people have confused it with either Alexandra or André.
    As I probably mentioned before, I don’t like the /gz/ in the Anglo version of my name. I don’t mind the fact that they can’t pronounce the «-andre» as it’d be in French, but I used to cringe just a bit when I would hear /alEgzandr*/. The advantage of “Alex” is that the /ks/ remains voiceless. At the same time, in French, I actually prefer my full name to the short version. And, at some point in the not-so-distant past, I stopped cringing at the voiced consonants in the middle of my first name.

    I didn’t talk about my last name, here (though I do frequently talk about it). It’s distinctively Swiss but several Turks and Hungarians have thought that it might be Turkish or (non-Magyar) Hungarian. In Quebec, it’s been consistently mispronounced, people have thought it was Italian (everything with -i), and it has participated in my labelling as something different from a «Québécois de souche». But now that I live online, it’s a very useful name. Do a Google search for it and you’ll notice why… 😉

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