Linguistics isn’t jargony mumbo jumbo.  It enables a deep understanding of language and language use that can steer the client in the right direction in choosing a name.  Even more consequentially, linguistic insight can prevent naming pitfalls.

Recently we named a logo branding business, a company that puts a business name and logo on a range of products to give away.  This particular logo branding company was a concierge business, offering above and beyond specialty assistance in developing the right logo products, and it had unusually creative suggestions for logo items  – if you could imagine it, they would find a way to logo it.  In the course of the name development process, we suggested and the owner agreed that the word ‘footprint’ should be a part of the company name.  ‘Footprint’ was a reference to the logo-imprinting nature of the business, it also referenced the footprint of a building and by extension clients’ businesses, as well as evoked the meaningful impression that every business would like to leave behind.  And generally speaking, the word ‘footprint’ has positive associations:  footprints in the sand, an intriguing trail to follow, walking barefoot, etc.  ‘Footprint’ was an ideal word to capture the essence of the company and engender positive associations for potential clients.

Soon after work on the logo company was completed, we were asked to develop a name for an internet startup.  The startup’s founders felt that the concept of leaving something behind for humanity through the work one does was a defining concept of their mission.  As it happened, one of the founders suggested working the word ‘footprint’ into the startup company name to capture this ethos.  Generally speaking, ‘footprint’ is a fine word with positive evocations; contrast ‘fingerprint’ or ‘thumbprint’, both of which potentially carry negative baggage.

In this case, however, ‘footprint’ was a bad fit for the company name.  We can turn to a quick linguistic analysis of the word to see why.

‘Footprint’ is a type of noun that describes what is called a result state:  something has happened, the action is over, and something has been left behind.  ‘Footprint’ therefore transmits the idea of a static condition, no movement, nothing more is happening.  Contrast the noun ‘[a] kick’ coding an action and the noun ‘explosion’ coding a complex event.

The concept of a static condition is very far from the type of associations that this internet startup was aiming to evoke with its name:  energy, passion, movement forward, always something new going on, change.  The result state meaning of ‘footprint’ (likewise ‘stamp’, ‘impression’) was a bad fit for the work this startup needed their name to do.  We advised the founders that rather than using ‘footprint’ in the company name, the word along with the desired association ‘leaving something behind’ should instead play a prominent role in the company’s branding messages.

Two companies, the same word potentially relevant to each.  The linguistic properties of the word make it a powerful choice in one case and a problematic choice in the other.