The Evolution of Name
A name is a living thing. In 519 B.C. a certain name meant “curly haired” throughout the latin-speaking world. Then, in 430 B.C., after a Roman statesman became the actual stuff of legend, that same name came to encompass “military prowess, manliness, and civic virtue.” 2,000 years later, after the American War of Independence, that name became the moniker for a society that supported the Continental Army and Navy, and preserved the ideals of the revolution. Later still, the name was used to rebrand Losantville — a fledgling boomtown on the banks of the Ohio River — as the Paris of America: Cincinnati. Down the line, “Cincinnati” was invoked as the name of five different cities or towns in the United States (as well as one in Italy), General Ulysses S. Grant’s horse during the American Civil War, a “conservative and moralistic reform group” in the Pacific Northwest (during the times of Hoover and Roosevelt), and a character on the “Daniel Boone” TV show in the 1960s.
From curly hair to rustic myth to revolutionary force to post-war city to military horse to conservative reform to fictional innkeeper. A name can mean many things to many different people.
Names evolve. Ultimately, most people will come to define them as the sum of their experiences over time. Back in the 400s B.C. when Lucius Quinctius was given a nickname that equates to the modern day “Curly,” it took all of his heroic deeds coupled with his humble commitment to his family and farm to turn “Cincinnatus” into a legendary name.
Let’s look at a corporate example: Nike.
For 1,400 years “Nike” was the ancient Greek goddess who personified victory — this was common knowledge throughout the Greek empire. Some time in the 350s B.C., a tribe of Greeks from the modern-day city of Marseille won a battle over the Ligurians on the coast of France and named the city at the site of the victory Nikaia in honor of the goddess. Today, we call that city Nice. Around 630 A.D. a notable Sasanian king named his daughter Nike, but then the name goes relatively quiet for another 1,100 years until the eve of the Industrial Revolution, when a British thoroughbred named Nike won three of her five starts. Later, Nike was incarnated as an asteroid in 1891 by a French astronomer, who named it after the goddess and the greek name for the city from where he spied it — you guessed it, Nice.
Okay, so for about 2,700 years the Nike goddess myth holds strong as the prevailing definition. However, following the end of World War II — and a *victory* by the Allies — the US decided to develop its first anti-aircraft missile system and dubbed it Project Nike. For 30 years it was a fixture of the American military. There were five distinct types of Nike missiles deployed to 40 anti-aircraft “defense areas” throughout the US. Whether you were involved in the military or not you heard about Nike missiles in the press and the US Army’s own documentary television program — “The Big Picture” — which would tell locals about the Nike military bases that were “quietly moving into [their] backyards.” There were also 20 “research rocket” versions of the Nike missile — including the Nike-Apache that became the standard NASA research rocket, and the Nike-Cajun, which became “the most frequently used research rocket of the western world.”
For several decades Nike came to mean a rocket, a defense system, or even the “Nike soldiers” who were stationed throughout the US at Nike missile batteries. So when an upstart footwear and apparel company called Blue Ribbon Sports decided to rebrand as Nike, Inc. in 1971, they might have needed to take some care to grow and manage their brand. A few things to note right off the bat: 1. Nike, Inc.’s rebrand occurred just a few years before all remaining Nike rockets were deactivated by the US military, 2. There’s probably not much likelihood for confusion between a missile and a pair of sneakers, and 3. The original myth was still a strong reference to make in spite of the missiles.
When Nike selected their new name, they were the only athletic company on the market with a name from antiquity. By harkening back to the goddess of victory to square off with Onitsuka Tiger (ASICS), Adidas, and Puma, they were the ones standing out. Suddenly, the name Nike could be defined as a modern, durable running shoe.
By 1980, Nike accounted for 50% of the athletic shoe market in the US and needed to think bigger. Two other important things happened in the ’80s for Nike: one was a slogan and the other was the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. In late 1984 the Nike Air Jordan I was released to the public and the athletic footwear and apparel world would never be the same. Nike quickly moved beyond a historical reference to victory or even a commitment to making good sneakers. It became a feeling, an attitude, an identity. In 1988, Michael Jordan won his second and final NBA Slam Dunk Contest with the new Nike Air Jordan III’s on his feet and Nike’s freshly-minted slogan “Just do it” was echoing on the airwaves — Nike had firmly captured the world’s collective imagination. The name now meant cutting-edge, dazzling, audacious, preeminent, and was on its way to meaning fashion and even luxury.
For the foreseeable future, Nike will make most people think of the striking cultural icons that don their apparel and the new technology we’re wrapping around our shoulders or slipping beneath our heels — as opposed to ancient Greek mythology. The company treated their brand name like a living thing to be guided and nurtured, as a result they have kept us all intrigued.
Everybody has a point of view.
Over time, names evolve and change in meaning, whether through cultural phenomena, natural disaster, or just old school marketing and positioning. But everyone, from a first-time customer to the chairperson of the board is going to have an opinion at the precise moment that you ask them about a name. We find that it is important to be open to and even take advantage of the malleability of language, as opposed to the alternative.
Let’s get a few things clear: there are dozens of English-language dictionaries in the world, they are not created equal, and different technologies prioritize certain ones over others. Just because the first definition your Alexa brings up could be construed in an adverse way does not mean that her algorithms should be the last word. Some definitions are fairly singular, specific, and limited to a certain audience — in fact you may sometimes cull more “collective truth” from Urban Dictionary than you do from Merriam Webster’s, but it’s hardly a thing to make a rule about.
All words exist in a relational dance with various cultural references, skewing towards or away from their dictionary definition at any given moment — and in any given community. Which of these holds more water? Decision makers at their best need to be able to control their personal prejudices when addressing big, sweeping decisions, and think more about the ultimate audience and the prevailing winds of popular understanding and perception. Being misled by a flippant Google search (on one device with one browser with one specific online dictionary), as opposed to looking at the broader picture, can be a bit of a misstep. There can and should be a balance when evaluating multiple definitions of a name, and how those definitions are realistically applied in contemporary life. Don’t let one definition, or experience, of a name ruin your chance of making something beautiful out of it.
David Foster Wallace famously noted “society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes.” We’re all in charge of defining a name — or a word as it may be. And guess what? When you’re starting a company or rebranding a product, guess who has the most power to guide your audience and frame your story? You do. The evolutionary nature of language presents you with more opportunities than it does restrictions. You create experiences with clients or customers everyday. From the way your colleagues and employees say the company name during an introduction, to the way that you market your first big product, to the time you sign your first celebrity endorsement. All of those things lead back to your brand and create an ever-evolving experiential imprint on your name. Care for your name and it will grow into the brand that you want it to be.