Constructing language is central to the mechanics of making names. When it comes to naming, there are three main language constructs: (i) real language, (ii) compound language, and (iii) invented (also known as coined) language. But how should you choose between them when constructing a name for your brand, business or offering?

Much like it is with naming strategies, there is no “right” naming construct. Each approach comes with its own opportunities and the right one for you is the one that will best help you meet your broader business objectives.

Three main naming constructs: real, compound, and coined.

Real language is exactly what it sounds like – it’s language with a known and accepted definition. Whether in a single or multi-word format, real language is routinely employed in names across all industries. Apple. Tide. Jaguar. Bolt. Twitter. Canon. Guild Education. Impossible Foods. Relativity Space. Real language names are everywhere in the marketplace.

Compound language is when two or more words come together to form a unit idea. And it’s powerful because it consolidates concepts – resulting in expressions with singular, yet multi-faceted, meaning.

Compound words already exist in our vocabulary and are often selected when a company wants to be represented by a piece of language that is real, but “heftier”. Upgrade, Lacework, Handshake, Thumbtack, Ironclad, Clubhouse, Lookout, and Starburst are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examples of real, compound language being deployed in the context of brand naming.   

A deeper investigation of compound language involves exploring combinations of real language that do not exist within our current lexicon. This gets you to conceptual places like OpenTable, PayPal and YouTube.

The key difference between compound language that already exists and compound language that does not relates to the latter’s ability to project a sense of invention. Facebook. Grubhub.  Fireblocks. Sourcegraph. PaperColor. Snackpass. Roofstock. Brightwheel. Workrise. Airtable. These all feel like a “new noun” – an individual “something” that wasn’t there before. This is one reason why this naming construct is so popular in the technology sector.

Coined, or invented, language adheres to the pronunciation rules governing real language but are not “real’ words. The degree to which language can be coined varies greatly. Sometimes it involves making very minor changes to a real word. Other times, you are inventing a completely new word with no visible etymology.

This spectrum can be broken down into several sub-areas:

  • Mis-spellings are when a word is slightly mis-spelled in a way that maintains transparency to its original form. Such as Flickr, Digg, Froot Loops, Atyls, Purplle, Socure, and Cazoo.
  • Affixes are when a prefix or suffix is added to a word to transform its grammatical tense. Examples include Shopify, Lendable, Grammarly, Contentful, Benchling and Unacademy.
  • Truncations are when a word is shortened in some way without a rearrangement or change being made to the ordering of the remaining letters. Examples include Tanium (from “titanium”), Canva (from “canvas”) Revolut (from “revolution” Nuro (from “neuron”) and FedEx (from “federal express”).
  • Blends (also known as portmanteaus) are when parts of two separate words are combined to form a new word. Examples include Groupon, Instagram, Accenture, Pantone, and Fabletics.
  • Inventions (also known as empty vessels) are when a new word is created that has no etymology or no transparency to the real language roots that inspired it. Examples include Thrasio, Navan, Cigna, Noom, Hulu, and Etsy.
Carefully consider the unique pros and cons of each.

Coined language is typically the most ownable and, given its novelty and “unexpected” nature, can attract a lot of attention. Compound language tends to be the catchiest, the most memorable, and the most effective at zeroing in on a singular, high-value association. Real language often feels the most credible and can be used to position an offering with the most nuance and depth.

Naming constructs also come with their own unique challenges. Coined language (particularly empty vessel names) may initially require more education (and therefore more ad spend) as the market may not be able to easily infer anything about your offering from the name alone. As compound language is often comprised of crisp, single syllable words, the vocabulary pool for crafting it may be smaller and more limiting compared to its real and invented counterparts. Real language that is both relevant and ownable can be hard to find – often resulting in the need to accept alternatives when it comes to things like URLs, business registrations, and social media handles.

When choosing between naming constructs, the key recommendation is to carefully consider all options. Evaluate names that live into real, compound and coined language constructs. Consider them in the context of their relative capabilities and required compromises. And select one that also meets your narrative and strategic sets of criteria

– By Tanya Gustafson