Suboptimal naming conventions

Music

Like everybody else with functional ears, I love the Beatles. Surely, the dizzying heights of their universal fandom preclude any exhortations of their greatness from me. However, something that has always struck me was their rather pedestrian name. Beatles. They referenced perhaps one of the more unremarkable insects found everywhere, and then changed one letter; like that made a difference. Consider the following passage from Rolling Stone:

The beetle does not even carry any of the connotations you’d want your band name to carry. If you had to go the insect route, “The Moskitos” would arguably have more of a zing to it. Deadly and infectious. I could see those being useful connotations for a rock n roll band. Even “The Silkworm” might have somewhat worked; what with the turning over the earth to bring up fresh soil. Throw in some Asian fusion music in your repertoire, and you have a decent name. But the “Beatles”? Let’s find a rather unremarkable, ugly insect that is not deadly but merely annoying, and name our band after that.

Not that this should be mentioned anywhere on the same webpage as the Beatles, but my school band was called “The Nemesis”, which I think is a better name than the Beatles (fight me). For all the “rock and metal” connotations that the name carried, we mainly played easy-to-play popular songs like “Summer of 69”, didn’t do well in the local school band circuit, and disbanded when we graduated, much to the relief of our music teacher. Clearly, having a snazzier name is not a sufficient condition for music band-greatness. But surely the Beatles would not have lost out on anything with a snazzier name, right? It surely couldn’t have hurt? Why didn’t they choose one? Would they have sold less records if they’d been called “Rockin’ Roll”?

TV

Seinfeld is widely considered the best sitcom of all time. By the time it ended, it had been the most watched show in America for five years. I watch it everyday, and can vouch for its sheer genius, its never-ending self-referential loops, and its ability to not take itself seriously. But the name. Seinfeld. Just an unheard-of Jewish surname, catering to a primarily Christian American viewership. What is that?

When I go on YouTube, I know for a fact that I’d rather watch “The world’s smallest man eats the world’s biggest burger” than “Miller”. Couldn’t Seinfeld have given themselves a more eye-catching name? It surely couldn’t have hurt their viewership!

As a child, my favorite TV series was Shaka Laka Boom Boom, which is as snazzy a name as any that a hominid has ever uttered. It carries connotations of magic, explosions…..and other stuff. Now as an adult, I am told that the best TV series of all time are Seinfeld, The Office, The Sopranos, etc. I am pretty sure that if I came across any of these names in the TV guide, I would rather go to sleep than put them on.

Companies

Google.

It is a play on Googol, which is 10^{100}. When the company was first launched, almost no one in the world knew that number. How many times do you encounter that number when you’re paying your bills (although that might change on your next gas station run)?

Two brash young Stanford know-it-alls make a bad pun on a number that nobody knows about, and name their company after it. And it becomes the most recognizable name in the world.

What if they’d named it “infinity”, or some clever variation of that? Would that have really hurt their prospects?

Counterexamples

You don’t quite see this pattern in movies. For instance, some of the best known American movies are “Titanic” (which is really an adjective for big, and also of course a reference to the well-known disaster), “Shawshank Redemption” (redemption or revenge may surely attract someone’s interest), etc. Some outliers are Forrest Gump, Citizen Kane, Ben-Hur, etc, which are spectacularly acclaimed movies without eyeball-grabbing names. However, a clear case for “the best movies always have boring names” cannot be made.

If you think about Hindi movies, some of the most acclaimed movies are “Sholay” (which is really another word for fire or flames), “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” (the pure-hearted man shall inevitably win over the bride), Rang de Basanti (color me saffron, which is a reference to the Indian freedom movement), etc. There are certain outliers, like “Lagaan” (literally, tax). However, there are not enough outliers for a coherent case to be made for “boring names”.

A lot of companies clearly seem to buck this trend as well. Think Apple, Amazon, Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal, Facebook, Intel (perhaps a reference to intelligence? EDIT: A friend informed me it stands for integrated electronics), etc. Although Microsoft is not as snazzy a name as some of the others, it does have connotations of miniaturization and software.

Some bands seem to buck the trend as well. “Led Zeppelin” carries all the force of burning transatlantic balloons and flaming mid-air deaths and….lead. Other artists like Black Sabbath, Metallica, Guns n Roses, and Machine Gun Kelly have also experienced musical success, despite their on-the-nose names. However, we can argue that at least one of them is not quite as good as the Beatles. One day you may perhaps agree with me that none of them are as good as the Beatles, although Jimmy Page can certainly make the guitar sing.

Lessons to be drawn

Does having a bad name help? I don’t think that this is the case. I surely wouldn’t have heard any less of the Beatles’ songs if they were called “The Alpacas” or “The Peanuts”. The same goes for Seinfeld; I would still have watched it everyday on my phone even if it was called “The dating life of a bald guy”.

But what about the fact that naming yourself after something with too many connotations holes you into a paradigm? For instance, if the Beatles were called “The Rebels”, they would mainly be expected to make anti-authority ballads. They could never make “She Loves You”. If they’d called themselves “The lovers”, they could then never make “I am the walrus”.

If “Seinfeld” was called “Friendship”, they could never make the backwards-running episode about their trip to India, or Jerry and George’s failed attempt to sell a TV series to NBC in an uncanny self-referential loop.

Perhaps having a neutral name without connotations leaves you free to experiment, and you can evolve with the times instead of being stuck behind your name and the expectations it gives rise to, which of course cannot change with the times.

We see this phenomenon in the fashion industry too. The top brands are “Louis Vuitton”, “Versace”, etc. All of them are named after their founders, and don’t really carry any connotations relevant to the fashion industry (apart from, perhaps, some “French-ness”). Hence, they can release designer lines every year that vary wildly in look and feel without breaking brand.

Hence, perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is that if your band or brand name does not carry any connotations relevant to your field, you will be free of people’s expectations, and can hence be free to explore, experiment, and change with the changing times.

“Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” will perhaps become irrelevant in a world that is slowly placing more importance on female agency; the modern woman is not something to be won over by a man. But Citizen Kane will remain relevant. “Led Zeppelin” may become irrelevant in a world where screaming guitar solos and effeminate men shrieking about sex are passé. But the Beatles will continue to remain relevant.

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Graduate student

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