6 Rules for Naming Imaginary Products
#16, November 26, 2014
I write a lot of speculative fiction for which I have to make up names for made-up things, such as futuristic hair styles or space weaponry or the name of a sofa manufacturer in the year 2497 or whatever. And it's not easy to come up with names for this stuff — not because it's tricky to come up with logical yet fanciful terms but also because those terms might already exist, usually in the last places you would expect.
Let's say my lead character is a spy, and she has a tiny camera inserted up her nose so that she can take secret pictures in the alien embassy by tilting her head back and no one will ever know because, heck, who stuffs a camera up their nose, right? As the author, I decide to call this piece of amazing futuristic nasal technology a Schnozcam. Certainly no one in their right mind has ever used such a word, right?
Well okay, maybe I should Google it, just in case. And doggone it, there it is! There's a Twitter profile where somebody's name is Schnozcam! And a pioneering cameraman has developed a "schnozcam" for the nose of a plane! And look, there's even a guy in Texas who crammed a real mini-camera up his nose and called it a Schnozcam!
So now what do I do? Make up another term for my nose camera? What if the next term I create has been created by somebody before, too? Answer: It depends how "original" I want to be. I could still use Schnozcam if I wanted. The person who calls their Twitter page "Schnozcam" doesn't own the term. And if the inventive camera guy manufactured his airplane Schnozcam, I doubt my using the term would affect his sales, so no prob there. And the weird guy in Texas? Well, he's just a weird guy in Texas. So technically, I can still use Schnozcam.
But what if I want my nose camera to have a unique name, a term that even the Google gods don't know? In that case, Schnozcam won't cut it, so let's look at "The 6 Rules for Naming Imaginary Products" that I just totally made up. Hopefully they'll help you out:
1) Rhythm. Create a term that has a commercial rhythm to it, something that sounds like you'd hear it in a modern day ad. Regardless of your story's era, you're writing for present-day readers whose ears are tuned to modern day commercialism. Example: In the 1950's, a lot of products had names that used an "O" in the middle — Slice-O-Matic, House-O-Pancakes, etc. This was because of the fun rhythm that "O" created.
2) Sound. When you say your made-up name out loud, it should roll off the tongue easily. I believe that good made-up words "read" better if they "speak" better. This isn't the same as rhythm. I'm talking here about awkward words. Example: An automatic Fraquiethspamx could never sell, regardless of what it is, because nobody would be able to say it.
3) Punch. A good commercial term in any era is punchy, that is, has an energetic sound to it. That doesn't mean your term should sound like a comic book SFX (ZOWIE!), but it shouldn't put a person to sleep either. Example: In a futuristic novel I'm working on, teenagers wear "ruck jeans." Ruck has several meanings: a jumble of items; rugby players all going after the ball at the same time; a fight. So ruck implies action, even violence — an excellent naming concept for a rowdy teenage fashion product.
4) In general, keep it short. Example: again, "ruck jeans." Short and simple.
5) Imply the product. By this I mean that a product's name often implies its function, which is a good thing. Example: Zippy's Letter Service, Googoo's Gag Shop.
6) Use humor. Even if your book is a drama, it's nice for readers to get a dose of silly now and then, especially when the tension is high. Example: In Robert A. Heinlein's classic YA novel Tunnel In the Sky, the heroes discover amusing little rabbit creatures on an alien planet. The kids laugh at the creatures and call them Dopey Joes — until the creatures turn nasty and kill half of them. A creepy irony is created when the kids continue to refer to the killer creatures as Dopey Joes.
I hope this helps all you SF and fantasy writers who must constantly name new things in your stories. Just know that the more you practice this task, the better you'll get at it.