Title TK

RM: This is Blueprint. I’m Roman Mars. Nope.

This is sight unseen. I’m Roman Mars. Nah. Uh uh

This is An Ear for Design. I’m Roman Mars. Ugh.

This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Now that’s nice.

AT: The name is important.

RM: It’s the first thing, the tip of the spear. With any product, you can use, or buy, or see…

AT: And you’re bombarded by thousands of names every day.

RM: The name of this producer is Avery Trufleman.

AT: And in the daily barrage of names, only the names that are most interesting, most pleasant on the tongue, can survive in your memory.

LS: If it’s any kind of consumer product like from P&G or Sony, or yeah, it’s going to be a naming company that did it. You may not know it but, probably.

AT: And naming companies, as in companies that name things, are responsible for many of the proper nouns that you remember.

LS: Naming is just this weird little area, and there’s business right, and then there’s marketing, and there’s branding, and then there’s naming it. And naming is so small! Really there are so few naming companies, there’s like 20.

AT: And Laurel founded one of them.

LS: My name is Laurel Sutton, I’m one of the co-founders of CatchWord. We’re a naming firm here in the Bay Area.

AT: And CatchWord comes from those guiding words at the top of a dictionary page. Those are the catchwords.

LS: Most people don’t know it, it doesn’t matter. It just is what we do. So we’re about words, and we’re about words that are catchy.

AT: She and her team have worked on everything; a line of yogurts for Chobani the Palm Pre, GAPs customer rewards program. They have named as they put it, everything except a car.

RM: You might think, “Hey I named my dog, or my kids, or my band, or my blog. It’s not too hard.” But there are a number of things to consider when designing a name. Just think of all the associations with every word. Take, for example, Photoshop Elements.

LS: So we didn’t name Photoshop, but we did come up with the ‘elements’ part of it, and that word took a lot of work.

AT: Because Photoshop was looking to market a less expensive version of their software that had all the same capabilities as regular Photoshop, just without all the bells and whistles.

LS: You would think that that would be easy, but it wasn’t.

AT: So they didn’t want to use Photoshop Light or Photoshop Basic or anything that sounded compromising.

LS: So we went through a really large exploration of all the different ways that we could say just as good but not as full-fledged, and we looked at essentials, we looked at just every word.

RM: And they chose ‘elements’ for it subtlety.

LS: Elements are the most basic parts that you can have, but they’re essential. You can’t have anything without elements. So that’s the word that we eventually chose.

AT: And that’s why you hire the experts. To consider this stuff.

RM: And they don’t come cheap.

LS: The vast majority of naming companies like us are pretty expensive.

AT: But naming companies don’t just make up names. They also check what names are available for URLs and for trademarks, and they see which names mean bad things in other languages.

LS: We can take any list of names and check them in any language in the world and say, “Is it pronounceable? Does it have a negative meaning? And outside of the US is there a brand already existing in your country? or like a TV show that has the same name that we should be aware of?”

RM: And you can’t underestimate the importance of linguistic checks. Once they were naming a little gadget toy…

LS: And one of the names that we had come up with for them turned out in Japanese to be a word that meant ‘a small device that doesn’t work.’ So, we took that one right off the list.

RM: But more than anything else, Laurel and her team at CatchWord just produce a TON of names.

AT: As Laurel sees it, there is a direct relationship between quantity and quality.

LS: You know, the first 500 names that you come up with are going to be really obvious things; they’re already taken, or they’re not going to be that interesting. You kind of have to get that out.

AT: So CatchWord will generate over 2,000 names. They present 30-50 to the client.

RM: And they come up with so many freaking names because they come up with names across the naming spectrum.

LS: Because we’re talking about language, it’s always a spectrum.

AT: So at one end of the spectrum you have descriptive names.

LS: And those are names that absolutely just describe what the thing is. A classic example: Raisin Bran.

AT: Benefits of descriptive names. They are self-explanatory.

LS: That’s what that stuff is, right? It’s a box, it’s bran, and it has raisins in it. You would never have to explain to anybody what this stuff is. Shredded Wheat, that’s what that is! It’s wheat and it’s been shredded.

RM: Drawbacks to descriptive names? They are hard to own.

LS: Normally you can’t trademark names like this, in fact, Raisin Bran and Shredded Wheat are not trademarks. Anybody can have cereal and call it Raisin Bran or Shredded Wheat.

AT: So a lot of descriptive names tend to get modified.

LS: International Business Machines; pretty darn descriptive. Over time they’ve condensed that IBM.

AT: The other big drawback is that descriptive names can be limiting.

LS: if you remember there were companies called things like e-stamps, right? If you ever want to do anything but sell electronic stamps, you’re screwed.

AT: On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got so-called ‘arbitrary names.’

LS: And Apple is a great example of that. It doesn’t tell you anything about what they do.

AT: Which allows for flexibility.

LS: They used to just make computers, now they do media. They could do anything under that; I mean, they could make cars.

RM: But Apple is a real word that you can find in the dictionary of course. It had its own set of associations. Maybe Apple implies learning or freshness. I dunno. But it doesn’t apply to the thing it’s naming.

AT: Arbitrary names can also just be completely made up and these kinds are called the Empty vessels.
Some examples are Hulu, or Exxon, or Xerox. or Kodak.

LS: Kodak has absolutely no meaning. They only chose it because that great hard ‘kuh’ sound is very acoustically relevant. That is, it really cuts through. We tend to say the things that start with that hard K sound are strong. Things that start with T; also the same way. It’s kind of a strong, more aggressive sounding name whereas an F sound is very soft. It’s a little harder to hear it, and people just don’t respond as well to it.

AT: The benefits of arbitrary names and ‘empty vessel’ names, they’re easy to trademark, easy to get the domain name for, and usually good in languages around the world.

RM: Drawback, they are hard to market.

LS: You have to explain them to people. You know you have to put a lot of money behind these kinds of names to tell people what they mean.

AT: Right, Okay. So you’ve got descriptive on one end of the spectrum, and arbitrary on the other. And most names fall somewhere in between the two, and Laurel calls all these names in the middle ‘suggestive names.’

RM: They’re not exactly arbitrary, and they’re not exactly descriptive; like Microsoft.

LS: Microsoft Software for microcomputers, right? It kind of says what it does, but not really because it’s those two words that are smooshed together like that.

AT: Microsoft is an example of a coined word; a word that doesn’t exist in the English dictionary, but it’s made up of familiar words, word parts, or sounds.

RM: Spotify and Nescafe, and Netflix are also coined words They sound like English words but they’re not. And Laurel and her team generate tons of coined words from a list of root words.

LS: You try to find the right vocabulary for the client and what they’re trying to convey in this name.
Make a list of vocabulary and you think, “Okay, how can I modify these words?” and then we have lists of prefixes and suffixes in English; and then you just start pairing them up.

AT: For example, take the root ‘name.’ From there you can get name Nameling, Namely, Rename, Namespot, Namepro, Proname. But okay, let’s be honest; there are lots of websites that can mash prefixes and suffixes to words and generate big long lists for you. But websites are not linguists.

RM: They can’t tell you what names are actually good.

LS: That’s where the skill and the creative talent comes in, it’s figuring out what’s a good word.

AT: And you wouldn’t think it, but suggestive names are really difficult to create

LS: Because you want them to have meaning, a lot of them are taken.

AT: Taken for domain names and trademarks and as Laurel sees it doesn’t hurt to have 2,000 options…

RM: But it doesn’t have to be this way.

LS: There are other people who do it very differently; they do it 10 names at a time. That works for them.
I think it depends on whether you come from more strictly a naming background or whether you come from an ad agency background and you do it that way.

EA: You tend to present around 12 names because if you present too many, then the value of any given name is drastically reduced.

AT: Eli Altman is the creative director at One Hundred Monkeys another naming company only a few miles away.

RM: Eli’s company got its name from the idea that if you put a hundred monkeys in front of a hundred typewriters, you’re bound to get a good name. It’s kind of a joke about the process.

AT: They give their client a list of 12 names. It’s not like One Hundred Monkeys produces fewer names because they’re lazier, these guys just have a really different philosophy to naming.

EA: Some people think that naming is about linguistics. We are not of that philosophy. Names are all about the stories that they begin to tell.

AT: Eli and his team do not make coined words or ‘empty vessels.’

EA: I just don’t think that’s maybe the most productive way to think about names? It’s like sort of mixing with prefixes, creating portmanteau and things like that. We’re much more interested in the history of the word and backstory than inventing.

AT: Really these guys are very into mythology and narrative. At the meeting I sat in on, one name was a small town in Europe where a famous mathematician was born. Others were inspired by anatomical charts and constellations.

RM: One Hundred Monkeys has the dinner party in mind; names that lead to conversation.

AT: And in this way, Eli and his team have named Front Porch Senior Living Communities, The Lot, which is the Rhode Island state lottery, and Start Here, The Microsoft Windows tutorial. Yeah, they’ve named a lot of different things.

EA: Companies, products, services, theories

AT: You’ve named theories?

EA: Yeah.

RM: It’s true. It’s called Conditioned Hyper Eating,

EA: A theory for how fast food companies design food to make it irresistible.

AT: Okay, Conditioned Hyper Eating was kind of a departure for One Hundred Monkeys. Normally they go for more poetic names.

EA: You know it’s just really about finding as many interesting words as you can. From Secret Service code names, to run down theaters, to types of wind or ocean currents.

AT: And so whereas Laurel sees a naming spectrum, Eli envisions sort of a name taxonomy; and the classifications break down and down and down into 25 species.

RM: 25 categories of names which he lists in his book, “Don’t Call it That.”

EA: Names that are about people, Tesla, Jack Daniels. Invented characters, Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean. Names that feel like they have history in them, Banana Republic, Crown Royal.

AT: And it’s not like some of these categories are good and some are bad. They’re just a lot of options.

RM: It mostly comes down to what kind of story if any, you want behind your name.

LS: Some clients really want a meaningless name.

RM: Remember, made up names are easier to register domains or trademarks for and are less likely to offend.

LS: And if it’s a meaningless word, if it’s just a completely coined made up word, you can make up any story you want around it. A name like Hulu for example, as far as I know, doesn’t actually have any real meaning. I know that Hulu, the inventors of that have a story around that name. I don’t think is true, but it’s a cool name because it’s short, it’s easy to remember, visually it’s very interesting looking. So no, you don’t need to have a story around it.

RM: The long and short of it is this.

LS: If you’ve got enough money, you could pick any old name to do it. You could pick a name as meaningless as Hulu.

AT: Yep, money talks. If you have a ton of money, basically the name could be anything.

RM: Remember when the iPad was about to come out? Everyone thought it was the silliest name you’ve heard all kinds of sanitary napkin jokes. But now through sheer force of will and advertising dollars, you don’t think twice about it.

AT: But with a name like iPad at least you can pronounce it. Can you imagine reading Xerox for the first time? Before they get their new name, companies and products usually have a little internal code names or nicknames like Project X; or they get named after someone’s cat or something like that.

LS: Sometimes unfortunately with big companies, this will often happen; they will have a code name that someone internally has chosen which is actually pretty good, and people get very attached to it. And then we have to convince them that they can’t use it because it’s probably not available as a trademark. So sometimes we have a little ceremony, like a grave thing. Seriously, we’ve actually done this where we have in our briefing we’ll put up a little slide where it shows a grave and then we’ll have the code name on there. Then we say okay, now we’re going to have a moment of silence for your code name because you can’t have it, so you have to let it go. We all sit there for a minute. Then I say okay, now we’re going to think about the new name!

RM: So what should we name this episode?
AT: Uh, well I was going to call it What’s In a Name.

LS: I will slap you so hard if you call it What’s In a Name; I really will.

AT: So yeah apparently everybody uses that title to talk about naming and then I thought I’d go for something subtler like you know, A Rose By Any Other.

LS: I will also slap you call it that too.

AT: Man!

LS: 90% of the articles that we’ve been quoted in have either been What’s In a Name, or a Rose By Any Other Name. Those have been the headlines on those. Just awful.

AT: So I don’t know what to call this episode! Help us name this episode!

LS: Oh I don’t know, I don’t know, I’d have to give it some thought. I can name on the fly like that.

RM: Title TK

AT: I don’t get it, why TK?

RM: Title TK, it means title yet to come. Like, we’ll fill it in later. If you work in any newsroom you know like, you don’t know what the headline is, or some little piece of research. Instead of stopping and figuring it out, you can just type in TK and your editor knows that you’re gonna go back and fill it in later.

AT: Shouldn’t it be TC?

RM: Well I was taught that TK stood out better on the page so that you won’t miss it when you’re going back and revising. Makes sense, right?



99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Laurel Sutton, co-founder of Catchword Branding, and Eli Altman, creative director at A Hundred Monkeys and author of the naming book Don’t Call It That. Catchword namer Alex Kelley also makes an appearance .


“The Clockwork Maid” — The Clockwork Dolls
“Keetley” — Ok Ikumi
“Wonder Happens” — Podington Bear
“A Mobile Over Your Bed” — Lullatone
“Cat on the Fence” — Felix Laban
“Filtered Light” — Ok Ikumi
“Stars on the Ceiling of a Planetarium” — Lullatone
“Morning Talk” — Arcade Fire
“Supersymmetry” — Arcade Fire
“Little Fury” — The Breeders

  1. Very interesting episode. A small quibble: it’s my understanding that Kodak is not just a made-up word, but instead an onomatopoeia representing the clack of old camera lenses snapping a photo.

    1. Brendan, the idea that “Kodak” was chosen for its similarity to a camera shutter sound is an urban legend. When asked about it, George Eastman, who came up with the name, said “Philologically, the word Kodak is as meaningless as a child’s first ‘goo’—terse, abrupt to the point of rudeness, literally bitten off by firm and unyielding consonants at both ends, it snaps like a camera shutter in your face. What more would one ask!”

  2. SN

    You brought up Hulu during the episode. While the official story is that the word means some gourd filled with goodness (it actually does mean that), the real story is different. A list of all four letter words was made and “hulu” was chosen since it sounded good, is mostly meaningless and a matching domain can be easily acquired.

    1. Thanks for the info on Hulu! I strongly suspected that was the case. A lot of names had a story retrofitted (Yahoo! is a good example) and it’s good to know that Hulu was pragmatically selected, originally.

  3. Whether they knew it or not, Hulu is NOT an “empty vessel” for paleoclimatologists. Hulu is the name of a Chinese cave where the historical strength of the East Asian Monsoon was (famously) reconstructed. Check out the paper here…


    Since you are in San Francisco, next December, when the American Geophysical Union has its annual meeting at the Moscone Center, stop one of us on the street and ask us what we think “Hulu” means and we’ll tell you it’s a cave.

    1. Andrew, it’s “kizumono”, which is usually translated as “defective article” and which we were told is often applied to small devices, like toys or electronics, that don’t work. It has another, less SFW meaning as well (you can Google it).

  4. I think TK might come from ‘Koming’. I was taught that if you leave ‘Koming’ instead of ‘Coming’ to ‘To Come’, it will always be picked up by a spellcheck, meaning you won’t miss it before it goes out to publish.

    1. pica pusher

      Definitely. Also, “TK” is more search-unique. If you search your manuscript for “TK” you’ll find very little, whereas if you search for “TC” you could find “itch,” “watch,” “splotch”…

  5. This was an amazing episode for name nerds like myself. It’s great hearing people speak so enthusiastically about things I’ve always pondered and thought about.

    Before the title of the podcast was described, I assumed it was referencing the hard/powerful-sounding letters mentioned earlier on in the podcast. Either works!

    Great stuff!

  6. Eric Wolff

    This is a story for Roman, Laurel, and Avery: I don’t know who the naming company was. I work for a company called “Leidos” which is made up from the inner syllables of the word “Kaleidoscope”. We are a huge ($7B) “Government Systems Integrator” so perhaps one can understand why they thought it would imply “seeing things differently” and forgot that when one looks through a kaleidoscope everything is, well, jumbled up. I hold the naming company responsible for the error.

  7. Grano

    Xerox comes from xerography and xerostat – xero means dry and they were the first with a dry copy method.

  8. RF

    I really enjoyed this episode. Even more initially shocking than the iPad was the name Nintendo “Wii”. I swore I’d never call it that, but now it is in everyone’s vocabulary. I’d be interested to hear your input on this and why they named the successor the “Wii U”

  9. Greg

    Exxon comes from Esso which comes from S.O. which was the abbreviation for Standard Oil. The name is the result of arbitration but it is not arbitrary.

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