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How to Research Word Connotations for Naming

by Marcia Yudkin, Head Stork, Named At Last

Suppose you’re not sure whether a word or phrase you want to use in a name or tag line is appealing or distasteful. I was thinking about this dilemma the other day when a client replied to my thumbs down on a word he liked with “There isn’t anything about those negative connotations in the dictionary.” 

In that instance, the dictionary did not settle the matter. Are there other authoritative indicators?

If you aren’t naturally sensitive to the associations that surround and accompany words, or if you’re tempted by a particular word you don’t encounter much, here are excellent ways to research its aura or ambience.

Six Ways to Research Word Connotations 

1. Consult the dictionary. Sometimes dictionary definitions do indicate positive or negative implications. For example, every dictionary I’ve consulted states that “notoriety” is an unfavorable version of “fame.” Likewise, any dictionary will alert you that “holocaust” refers to mass murder or genocide and is therefore not a word to use lightly.

2. Consult an encyclopedia. If you were thinking of building a name for an environmental monitoring company around the mythical prophetess Cassandra, Wikipedia informs you that Apollo cursed her so no one would ever believe her predictions. Not an appropriate role model for a monitoring company. 

Taking this step saved me from humiliation when I was considering dubbing myself The Poohbah of Publicity. I wasn’t sure what it meant but liked how it sounded. According to Wikipedia, however, “Poohbah” comes from a Gilbert & Sullivan musical where it applied to a bombastic character who elevated himself in a ridiculous fashion. Glad I checked!

3. Look up images. In Google, click the “Images” link after putting your uncertain phrase into the search box. Are most of the first couple of dozen pictures that come up pleasant or horrifying to look at? Do this for “Extra Servings,” and most of the pictures that come up don’t exactly stimulate one’s appetite. Hence this would not be a propitious name for your new restaurant.

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4. Look in the news. In Google, click the “News” link and see what comes up in a search on your phrase. Doing this for the word “sweetheart” turns up the disreputable idea of a “sweetheart deal,” which might be enough of a reason for vetoing its use. Similarly, looking up “moose” in Google News reveals that in Canada, these large hooved mammals have caused so many fatal car accidents that this is no longer an animal with affectionate connotations.

5. Ask people. Whether in the formal setting of market research or just informally posing a question like “Would you rather be safe or secure?” to friends, you’ll discover that “safety” has much more emotional resonance than “security,” which is a colder, more abstract concept. 

6. Consult an expert. A naming expert typically has zillions of facts and references crammed in her head. Ask me about “money changer,” and without any research I’ll tell you it calls up the literary villains Scrooge and Shylock and a historically hated profession. In the same way, off the top of my head I’d advise against adopting a raccoon as a company mascot, because it has a reputation as a pesky marauder in suburban garbage cans.

Do a little poking around or asking to prevent a red-faced mistake in naming your company.

Stuck on thinking up or choosing your new company or product name?  Get help generating a snappy business name or powerful product name.

Copyright 2011 Marcia Yudkin.  No reprinting or republishing without written permission.

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