Superhumanised methyl: an infallible process for naming things

“I’m no good at names” said pretty much everyone I’ve ever founded and named a project with. Of course you aren’t because how often does one found and name a project? It’s a learned skill. You’ll get better at naming things as you name more things.

I’ve been following the same naming process since we named the Ada Initiative and it’s worked well several times; we came up with a name that we liked and the project didn’t split up over the issue of naming. I thus feel like it’s ready for public release and declaration of infallibility.

What are you trying to name?

Get down a short description of the thing you are trying to name: a two sentence summary, a mission statement, or similar. Eg: “a group blog for people who both knit and crochet”, “a future multinational oil company” or “a street festival”.

This may sound really obvious — why would you be naming something before you know what it is? — but in fact often you have to name things before almost anything else happens, because the name will need to go in your domain, in your incorporation paperwork, in your Twitter handle and so on. Often the need for a name arrives simultaneously with the need for a mission statement; get a short summary down as you currently understand your project.

Consider the obvious

I tend to lean to names that are fairly abstract, because I want to avoid asserting a particular kind of authority for a new project. For example, the Ada Initiative was not named “the Women in Open Source Initiative” for the reason that we weren’t intending to be an umbrella group or a one-stop-shop. Separately, abstract names are apparently easier to establish as a trademark (of course, if trademarkability is an important consideration for you, involve an intellectual property lawyer in your naming process).

But that said, it’s worth considering if you should be “the Winter Street Fair” or “the Crafters Blog” or “Oil, Incorporated” before you disappear into the web of name possibilities.

Assuming you’ve decided not to go with a descriptive name, it’s time to…

Come up with sources of metaphors

This is the part where I personally get stuck on “but I’m terrible at coming up with metaphors”. But again, you don’t have to do this cold. Think about:

  • your field: tools and technologies, sources of meaning and difference and status within it (quality, skill, design, distinctiveness, price, reliability, longevity, sub-cultural elements…)
  • history: early figures in the field/region, early tools and technologies, important places and their names
  • related fields and their tools and technologies, important places and so on
  • natural phenomena are very established metaphors: weather for energy/change, fire for destruction/renewal, wilderness (and space) for adventurousness, water for soothing/endurance/relentlessness

Your craft blog: historical crafters, historical technologies (eg the names of early looms), current technologies, colours, stitches, patterns, garments.

Your street festival: historical residents of the area, earlier names for the locality, street names, seasons and weather, local wares.

Your oil company: earth, power… varieties of hats? Pollution? Seriously, don’t get me to name your oil company.

Quite a lot of fields have a well-established metaphor, eg, “cloud” for computer servers hosted by other people (and earlier, for the wider Internet in general, often depicted as a cloud in diagrams). Add this and related metaphors to your sources of metaphor.

Create a list of possible names or part names.

Now you have your sources of metaphor, use them to come up with specific possible names. This is brainstorming with reference materials. I use either a thesaurus or Wikipedia to get down as many ideas as possible.

Valerie wanted to name the Ada Initiative for Ada Lovelace, but the second part of the name came from thinking about wanting to capture, essentially, activity, and then following networks of words related to activity, forward motion, and change around a thesaurus. I’ve named other things by working my way through Wikipedia categories and lists.

If I was naming a provider of cloud computing services and wanted to stick close to the cloud metaphor, this is some of what I’d end up with from this process:

  • from thesauruses, based on “cloud”: steam, vapour, nebula, dapple(d), overcast
  • from Wikipedia, poking around cloud and weather categories: hector, cloudburst, flanking line, cumulus, stratus, mushroom

If I was going to be going for high reliability, I might go with ground/grounded as a metaphor instead, and some of the following might end up on the list:

  • from thesauruses, based on “earth”: clay, loam, pottery, cave, nest, field, holding, home, soil, tillage
  • from Wikipedia, looking around soil-related categories: brown earth, mire, loam, terra, peat

This is the long-listing phase: Put down every possible name that you vaguely like. Don’t be bound by your sources of metaphor, consider adding words you’ve always liked or cool words you find randomly flipping in a dictionary, fragments of your personal motto, abandoned names from previous projects. There’s already a ton of filtering going on here (eg, it turns out there’s a whole lot of trademarked soil products ending in -sol I didn’t include) but don’t do it systematically yet. Just avoid writing down stuff you hate.

If I was looking for/open to a two word phrase, I’d both allow them here (“red soil”) and do the same process for the second half of a name (“initiative”).

You can cautiously branch out into other languages. I tend to end up at Latin pretty quickly because there’s less cultural appropriation issues than with many living languages, and English speakers can usually figure out a plausible pronunciation of the name.

Whittle down the list.

It’s time for the short-listing phase. You can do this by gut: get rid of “meh” names. This is also a good time to add a bunch of practical constraints to help cut it down. For example:

  • does it have connotations you don’t intend? (eg “girls” for a women’s group will at some point cause people to start asking questions about the age range of members)
  • how formal is the name, compared with your intentions?
  • is it striking and memorable?
  • is the origin story of the name entertaining and OK to share? (you may be asked for it)
  • is an appropriate domain name/Twitter handle/your landgrab here available?
  • is it easy to spell? (joke is on me: it took me ages to learn to type “initiative” reliably)
  • will people understand it when you say it over the phone? (trick question, this is never true, barring naming your new project “John” — or wait, was that “Jon”? — but if you keep it short at least spelling it out won’t be time consuming)
  • do you like the acronym or short form? does it have its own spelling or confusion issues? (the Ada Initiative used to receive a fair bit of correspondence concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act and the American Diabetes Association, both known as ADA)
  • is there a similar trademark?
  • is it a “style” of name widespread in your market (eg, two word names are common, or single syllables are common, or naming things in memory of is common) and do you want to nod to that or depart from it?
  • is it a word in other languages, and if so, what does it mean?
  • are you borrowing a term from a dispossessed or disadvantaged group? (eg using an Indigenous word for a non-Indigenous-centered thing in Australia)

The specific constraints will vary: I’ve rarely had to care about trademarks so far, and the fewer things I have to spell out over the phone the better. You’ll probably refine your criteria as you strike individual names.

Often at the end of this process you’ll be down to five names or less. One catch: you are pretty tired and bored by this point. Be sure you get rid of any name you in fact hate, no matter how good it seems by your criteria, because otherwise you risk choosing it out of exhaustion or inertia. In a group setting, you will need to risk a bit of conflict by trying to draw out “does anyone actually just hate any of these?”

The last one

Sometimes if you are lucky, you only have one candidate left, or else one that is just the best by far. You have a winner!

Otherwise, this is tricky. You’ve looked at the names so long you’ve started to lose any sense of their goodness. However, the whole painful preceeding process means that something that has made it this far is likely to be a perfectly fine name that you will grow attached to over time. Possibilities for making the final decision include: allowing no-reason vetos, votes, tasking one person with making the call. It can be worth taking an hour or two imagining the name in use: on your posters, your business card, your graffiti.

Postscript: what’s up with “superhumanised methyl”? Super? Human? Ised? Methyl? Well, I knew I needed to perform flawlessly in naming this entry, and so I did not do any of the above process but instead ran my random word generator a bunch of times until I got something I vaguely liked. However, in the spirit of full disclosure: I did change it to Commonwealth spelling.