What's In A Name: "Semantic satiation" and the art of choosing a perfect company name

By James Robinson , written on September 23, 2014

From The News Desk

It’s a slightly unusual feeling that we’ve all been struck with. We say some common everyday word one too many times and it suddenly loses all meaning. It just feels peculiar, like gibberish almost. (Tennis. Te-nnis! TENNIS. Ten-nis?) The phenomenon is so commonplace that it has inspired a gag on the most mainstream of mainstream sitcoms, like Friends and How I Met Your Mother.

It even has its own fancy, five-decades old scientific label, too: semantic satiation. Leon Jakobovits James first defined the feeling in his McGill University doctoral dissertation in 1962. His explanation being that repeating a word activates a specific neural pattern in our brains. Rapid repetition reduces the intensity of that activity in our brains each time we hear the word, eventually causing an inhibition.

Outside of sitcom gags and stoner comedy (think David Spade and Chris Farley driving in Black Sheep inadvertently high on leaked nitrous oxide tripping out on the word road) the most commonplace this dynamic plays out is in popular names. You could play all four sides of the Beatles’ The White Album while never thinking of insects. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers don’t inspire any thoughts of food. You could have been eating an actual Apple while watching the Apple Watch announcement and probably not put two and two together.

It’s a disassociation between sound and meaning that can be taken to surprising lengths.

Think Virgin. According to Richard Branson’s biography this name was suggested to him by a colleague when he was opening up his first record store in Notting Hill Gate in London in the early 1970s. The reason being, was that they were all new to the business, “virgins” in a sense. Four decades later, they are virgins no more. The company is a worldwide chain of stores, a record label, a global airline and a phone company employing more than 50,000 people across 50 countries. When used in conjunction with these businesses, the name becomes a six-letter sound conveying only commerce. Throw the word virgin into any other sentence and it holds a whole new meaning.

The same dynamic exists nearly everywhere in tech. Cisco came to be in 1984, named after the last five letters of its home city (San Francisco). Dropped into conversation in the appropriate techy-forum, the name Cisco brings to life only sturdy and dependable networking equipment. Anywhere outside of that and you’re left having to make jokes about Sisqo’s 2000 hit ‘Thong Song.’ The name GoDaddy was chosen because the domain name for was already taken, but the name is so played out that it’s likely been years since anyone was offended. According to company sources, Jawbone was named as such because the first noise cancelling headphones it made relied on sensors that rested on the jawbone. Not any more. But it doesn’t matter that there’s a lost association. You could talk about a Jawbone Jambox or UP band all day without thinking once of the human face.

We use Amazon compulsively, but we never think of an actual river. In late Middle English, the word actually meant “without breast,” referring supposedly to an old fable that Amazon women cut off their right breast to not interfere with the use of their bow.

You get the point. But then, if a company name ends up losing all meaning, ending up as a collection of sounds that strung together denotes only that one company and our feelings towards it, do names actually matter? Or are they a series of sounds whose only destiny is to get played out?

Someone like HAXLR8R’s Cyril Ebersweiler, who we interviewed in our last piece in this series, would say of course; that even at a name’s most played out level, it is still registering with our brains in some subconscious way, dictating how we feel about the company.

Others argue otherwise, that in cases like Apple, Amazon or Jawbone, irrelevancy is okay if the name is catchy and easy to remember. An early employee at Mint wrote in 2010 that one of the deciding factors in it beating out its rival Wesabe was that it had a better name. A University of Michigan psychological study found that the human brain associates unfamiliar words as being dangerous. During 2011, the average length of a new domain name was eight letters.

Maybe we can infer from this that semantic satiation in company names doesn’t entirely mean that the names themselves are irrelevant. There are things that need to be done correctly. A business name is like a music note. It needs to be catchy, short and familiar. Those considerations need to balanced just so.

It just doesn’t need to mean anything.

[Editor's note: This article is part of Pando's "What's In A Name?" series in which we look at the stories behind how some of tech's biggest companies got their names. The series is sponsored by Braintree, so you'll only see their ads around "What's In A Name?" pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Braintree had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

[illustration by Brad Jonas]


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