“Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes”  #2: Xfinity
-Time.com, February 8, 2010.

Many people have asked me why the name Xfinity feels awkward – people intuitively feel the awkwardness but can’t explain it.  Linguists study the human language ability from many different perspectives and so have a fairly good handle on what’s behind intuitions like this about language.

The name Xfinity was created out of the word infinity, replacing the IN with X.  Our mental grammars reject this surgery.  Here’s why.

As a result of this cutting and pasting, our mental grammars now hear something that sounds like finity.   There is no word finity in English, and in fact, we appear to reject finity as even a possible word of English.   Contrast Skype, which was quickly accepted  - not only as a possible English noun but also as a possible English verb.

Part of the problem here may be the word finiteness, that is, a word with similar meaning already exists.  Most of the problem, however, lies in the way the Xfinity surgery was performed.  Our mental grammars are full of rules about possible word structure, and we subconsciously reject attempts at word creation that violate these rules.

In a nutshell, Comcast claims that there is a word made up of IN plus FINITY – and why not change the IN to X.   Our mental grammar says “No, there is only INFINITE plus ITY – and even though you think you see IN, you don’t.  You’re not allowed to touch a piece inside a word.”  (See the earlier post on Frankenstein Names for why not.)  No matter how capricious this rule may seem on the surface, that’s the way language works.  Our mental grammar always wins this argument.

Undeterred, our mental grammar makes a valiant effort to try to make sense of X, hearing it as EX.  Could this be the EX found with verbs that means ‘out of’, as in extract, excrete, exhale?   But there is no verb part in Xfinity.  Hmmm.  That also rules out the negative (roughly) EX found with verbs, as in excommunicate, exfoliate.  Or possibly could it be EX, the noun prefix that means ‘former’, as in ex-spouse, ex-generosity.   Ex-finity?  ‘Something that used to be finity (whatever that is)?’  There are still more EXs to choose from.  Our mental grammar can’t resolve the issue.

Each time we come across the word Xfinity, our mental grammar goes gangbusters, trying to make sense of it.  Each time it fails.  Result?  “Awkward!”