New coinages of the realm

I've been paging through a new book by Alex Frankel, "Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words Into Big Business." It's introduced me to the world of naming consultants, the people who get paid to help entrepreneurs come up with just the right monikers for the latest hot new products and companies.

Frankel, a San Francisco journalist who has filled in for William Safire in the "On Language" slot of The New York Times Magazine, ran his own naming business, Quiddity, for a time before the dotcom bubble burst. Much of the change in language is gradual and unintentional. "New words" are generally just old words mangled so badly they get repackaged with a new meaning - the old French "couvre le feu" (cover the fire) eventually became our English "curfew," for instance.

And so the idea of a corporation paying a collection of professional wordsmiths big bucks to mint a new piece of coinage is interesting. It's the appeal of intentionality over accident. It's also to some extent the continuing triumph of the idea over the thing, but also of words as things, as products.

A lover of language looks at a new coinage the way a fan of architecture will look at a new building: Is it aesthetically pleasing? Does it fit well on the site, into its surroundings? Does it do the job it's supposed to?

My favorite chapter in "Wordcraft" discusses the naming of BlackBerry, the handheld messaging device produced by the Canadian firm Research in Motion. "Blackberry" is an actual word; it was modified by "intercapping," the internal capitalization so common nowadays in corporate names. Because berries grow on vines, BlackBerry suggested "networks," but in an accessible sort of way. And you can be sure that something called a "BlackBerry" is not going to come with a 200-page manual.

There are whole fields that seem to have done well over recent decades at coming up with energetic, effective new coinages, and other fields that have not.

Astronomy is one of the standout sciences - although most of its best new terms are not so much new coinages as concrete familiar terms given new meanings.

"Black holes" may represent the gold standard of scientific coinage. They were at first called "totally gravitational collapsed objects" and defined as collapsed stars with incredibly strong gravitational pull. "No one could wrap his head around this term until someone rechristened the phenomena black holes - objects from which light could not escape," Frankel notes. "Popular astrophysics has never been the same."

Similarly, astronomy has given us "dark energy" and the "big bang." Astronomers use what they call "standard candles" to measure the distance of galaxies and other objects in space. Physics is another field where naming has been done with a sense of creativity and whimsy: quarks and neutrinos and leptons, for instance. The social sciences, on the other hand, generally seem to be a disaster in terms of coinages.

The field of computers and personal electronics is a mixed bag. It's overloaded with geeky initialisms: ADSL, XML, etc.

A couple of my favorite recent new terms do come from computerland, though: "hot spots," and "FireWire" - the technology that allows superfast transfer of data. Both are short, snappy, concrete, and self-rhyming. "Hot spots" is a generic expression that has taken on a specific new meaning in the field of wireless computer networking. "FireWire" is even better, because it doesn't have other, more general meanings. Who knew that at this late date, such a nifty practical term could be put together from off-the-shelf parts?

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