Nancy Friedman of Wordworking and Fritinancy talks to CMOS

Nancy FriedmanWriters know that short projects can often be the hardest. It’s a challenge that Nancy Friedman faces in her daily work, as she strives to capture the essence of a company or product in just a single word. In this month’s Shop Talk, the owner of Wordworking and the author of the language-celebrating blog Fritinancy explains how she approaches the rigorous process of selecting names for companies and products, how she keeps her word skills sharp, and where she draws the grammar line.

Here’s your cocktail party moment: How do you explain what you do?

I write one-word stories for companies and products.

Can you explain how you go about coming up with a name? For instance, do you move through a set of steps or is it more of a loose brainstorming process?

I follow a specific and rigorous process: research, brief-writing, name generation, screening, and presentation. In the research phase I interview key decision makers and others (clients, for example), look at the competitive “namescape,” and immerse myself in the vocabulary of my client’s world. I then distill what I’ve learned into a written naming brief, which defines objectives and criteria for the project. The brief has a double purpose: it’s a road map for the creative phase and a yardstick for evaluating the names. In the name-generation phase I use lateral-thinking techniques (for example, I may pick a word from the naming brief and build a set of names based on that idea) as well as dictionary work, affixation (building names through prefixes, suffixes, and infixes), foreign-language exploration, and visual association. If the budget permits, I’ll hire another name developer (or two), and we’ll build on each other’s name lists. In the screening phase I perform Google searches, basic trademark searches, and domain searches; I may hire a trademark lawyer to give me more information about a name’s legal status. Then I put everything together into a presentation for the client. I show one name at a time with its story—etymology, connotations, brand appropriateness, and so on. I manage the discussion and guide the client toward a decision.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you use namestorming—brainstorming for names—techniques. Can you elaborate on these?

Mind-mapping, dictionary searches (I own lots and lots of specialized dictionaries), rhyming exercises, Scrabble play—whatever works!

So, what are some of your favorite “I wish I thought of that one!” names?

TiVo is simply brilliant. I like Surface, too: it was a smart choice for the Microsoft tablet device, in part because it’s such a refreshing departure from Microsoft’s ho-hum naming history. But I get more excited by a standout name from a small company. Chocolate Lab, for example, is a dessert café started by a chocolatier. The “lab” part of the name suggests science, of course, but it’s also a wink at the café’s location, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood.

I also love the name Rewined for a company that uses recycled wine bottles to make candle holders for wine-scented candles. The name is simple, elegant, and memorable, and it works on multiple levels.

I’d be proud to have come up with any of those names.

Grammar and style rules are often ignored in brand and company names. Do you try to follow any rules and are there any rules that you just won’t break?

I draw the line at using “lay” instead of “lie.” And I avoid names that violate the conventions of English spelling and pronunciation—they’re just too confusing.

In my experience, the problem isn’t “rules,” it’s bad portmanteaus such as Analtech, Shpock, and Blellow, and copycat names like all those names that end in -ly. Or names that rhyme with “oku.”

You have a full-time job with Wordworking, and you also find time to manage the Fritinancy blog and write columns for The Visual Thesaurus. How do you balance so many different kinds of work and still stay sane?

Well, my “full-time job” is my own consulting business, so I get to call the shots and set the schedule! The blog and Visual Thesaurus columns are how I market my services, and they give me an opportunity to sound off on subjects I care about. So it doesn’t seem like a lot of work or even different kinds of work: it’s all about words, and each activity tickles a different part of my brain.

How do you keep your language skills strong? Do you have a mental workout regime of sorts?

I read (newspapers, magazines, books, blogs), I listen to audiobooks in the car, I do the Jumble and the New York Times crossword. I’m active on Twitter—tweeting is an excellent exercise for writers! And I post almost daily on my own blog. The need for material keeps me constantly scanning for trends and oddities, and I’m constantly challenged to write concisely and engagingly.

What book or books most delight the logophile in you and why?

I’m enough of a nerd to get excited about a new dictionary or usage guide. I love the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus with its wonderful word spectrums and mini-essays by the likes of David Foster Wallace, Francine Prose, and Michael Dirda. I frequently refer (and defer) to Garner’s Modern American Usage. Less reference-y but still nerdy: Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and the splendid The Sound on the Page. (I’m currently reading an advance copy of Yagoda’s latest book, How to Not Write Bad.) Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite isn’t just a terrific usage guide, it’s great fun to read. For insights into language, politics, and culture, I’ve enjoyed Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going NucularTalking Right, and especially his latest book, The Ascent of the A-Word. And for smart, hilarious takes on branding and advertising, you can’t beat Leslie Savan’s The Sponsored Life and Slam Dunks and No-Brainers.

And I can’t resist a shout-out for Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead. It’s the only novel I’ve ever read whose protagonist is—as Whitehead puts it—a “nomenclature consultant.”

Finally, what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Kill your darlings.” Alas, I have so many darlings, and I’m such a mild-mannered pacifist.

Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at Wordworking, the author of the blog Fritinancy, and a regular columnist for Visual Thesaurus.

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