Michael Bierut | Essays

Call Me Shithead, or, What's in a Name?

Economist Stephen Levitt is interested in more than money. Instead, he wants to know how people make decisions: how they decide how much to pay for something, how they describe themselves to potential blind dates, why they decide to lead a life of crime or go into professional sports. And, of course, what to name the baby.

In their new book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Levitt and coauthor Stephen Dubner devote a chapter to the economics of baby names. What names are statistically correlated with educated parents? What names are correlated to socioeconomic status? Why are some names popular and some not? And along the way, they tell a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a baby girl who had been given a name with an exotic pronunciation, shuh-TEED, but an unfortunate spelling, Shithead.

Naming things — companies, products, brands — is a service that a lot of design firms, from Landor to Interbrand to Addison, are well compensated for providing. As such, it's also the only design-related activity that virtually every person on earth feels fully qualified to undertake on their own, for free.

Most clients would be hesitant to offer informed opinions about typefaces. Only ones sure of their own taste provide direction on things like color or form. But everyone has experience with naming, whether a baby or even a goldfish. The fact that it's so easy is what makes it so hard.

The biggest problem, of course, is that new names seldom sound good at first. Advertising executive Ron Holland thought that Xerox was a horrible name for their client's up-and-coming duplicating company. "They'll call it Ex-Rox, the famous Japanese laxative," he told his partner, George Lois. Upon learning in 1986 that the merger of Burroughs and Sperry would result in a new entity called Unisys, Calvin Trillin predicted that the company "will do everything in its power to live up to what the public might expect of a company that sounds like a disease." Today both of those names sound quite natural.

Given that birthing a new name for a business concern is such a traumatic experience, its no surprise some companies decide that nomenclature midwifes are worth every penny. Not that the nomenclaturists agree, of course, at least with each other. As Ruth Shalit wrote in a classic article on Salon.com, the experts at Landor who came up with the name Agilent couldn't have been prouder. "It's funny, because 'Agilent' isn't even a real word," said David Redhill, Landor's global executive director at the time. "So it's pretty hard to get positive and negative impressions with any real basis in experience. But I'm pleased to say that when we unveiled the name last month at an all-company meeting, a thousand employees stood up and gave the name a standing ovation. And we thought, 'We have a good thing here.'" A thousand cheering employees can't be wrong!

Yet Shalit soon discovered that Landor's competitors were less than impressed. "What a crummy name," said Steve Manning of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming specialist firm. "The most namby-pamby, phonetically weak, light-in-its-shoes name in the entire history of naming... It ought to be taken out back and shot," said Rick Bragdon, president of the naming firm Idiom. "Perhaps it would be best if Landor just closed up shop," said Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank. Of course, once you start thinking about names, they all start to sound...well...Idiom? ABC Namebank? A Hundred Monkeys?

You'd think that naming a baby was simpler. Maybe it's only because parents are blissfully unaware of how charged a name can be. In their book, Levitt and Dubner describe a series of "audit studies" that sent out identical resumes to employers with only one difference: one resume would bear a "black" name (DeShawn Williams) and the other a "white" one (Jake Williams). As you might sadly guess, the Jakes always get more interviews than the DeShawns. As a visit to the addictive Baby Name Wizard NameVoyager website will suggest, trends in baby names ebb and flow. But perhaps the trends are not quite as unpredictable as they seem at first glance. Levitt and Dubner, observing that the most popular names tend to start as "high-end" upper-income names (the once-tony "Madison" was the third most popular name for white girls in 2000), project that the most popular girl names in 2015 might be Annika, Clementine and Philippa, and for boys, Asher, Finnigan and Sumner. Agilent, a name I rather like, is nowhere to be found.

There is a rare occasion when naming the product and naming the baby come together. The poet Marianne Moore was once recruited by a pair of ambitious young executives at Ford to come up with a "colossal name" for the company's newest car. She set upon the project with enthusiasm, coming up with names that included the Silver Sword, the Aerundo, the Resilient Bullet, the Mongoose Civique, the Pastelogram, and the Utopian Turtletop. After considering Moore's suggestions and thousands of others, the company settled on a name that coincidentally was the same one that founder Henry Ford had picked for another one of his babies: Edsel. When the car flopped, the name was blamed. Although it could have been worse. Just ask Shithead.

Posted in: Business

Comments [15]

A comment on the feeling that your name became the "Mabel" of your generation. I watched a Staples commercial where the office manager was named, yikes, Linda. In 1958, Patricia and Linda were the most popular names of the year. And, in the fourth grade, Patti Perri, suggested that a y would be cool--much cooler than the standard i--and there you go. Except in 2005, my name is a Mabel. Decidedly now, uncool, inspite of Patti Perri's effort.
Lynda Decker

Wordcount, the ever-trusty popularity contest for english words does not contain any entry for Agilent; however, Bullshit ranks in at #23,584.
Joe Marianek

I'm reminded of a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Nicolas Cage (speaking of chosen names... Cage is actually a Coppola). In the sketch, he and his pregnant wife are trying to agree on a baby name. Cage repeatedly shoots down her suggestions by twisting the names into something other children would say teasingly (something like "No, not Arthur, they'll call him Art Fart!") His protestations become more exaggerated and absurd until the conversation is interrupted by the doorbell. A delivery man stands in the doorway declaring, "I have a package here for a Mr. Asswipe." Cage blows up, yelling "It's Ahzweepay!" Much laughter ensues.

Perhaps no matter what name you choose, the legacy of being an asswipe (if you have such a legacy) will always catch up with you. Altria anyone?
Josh Berta

How trite of those folks at 100 Monkeys, Idiom, and ABC Namebook to publicly critique LANDOR. These other naming consultancies are simply not equal to Landor (Worldwide).

Their names are neither, Functional, Experiential, Evocotive nor Invented.
The four categories of Name Generation.

Anyway, even with namer software by Salinon we've simply run out of names. Most of the Latin names for Corporations are already exhausted.

Resulting in, inventive naming.

Often times, the BEST NAMES are those generated by employees. After Identity and Naming Consultancies have exhausted all possibilities.
Such was the case with Accenture.

Kudos and Accolades to Anspach Grossman Portugal (now defunct) whom named Unysis.
Ok, they morphed into Enterprise IG after WPP, bought, Sampson Tyrell, The Walker Group, Sidjakov, Berman, Gomez, and Anspach Grossman Portugal and renamed them all 'Enterprise'. Not quite the same without Original Cast and Crew.

Interesting Reading: On Accenture and the Name Game by Naming Guru Tony Spaeth.


I've always been interested in this topic. Can anyone shed a little more light on the process the average naming firm follows to generate names for businesses, products, etc. ? How much time is spent, what the going rate is, how is the name presented, that sort of thing.

Any other book or article recommendations will do.
Justin Mayer

Best unusual name: Neee --- pronounced Nie-EEE-uh. You always know you're doing great when the name you choose breaks the rules of the language.
John B.

A few years back I found the website of a strange group of people called the Kabalarians who believe that a child's name can affect their personality and imbue them with traits over life. While the website definitely affects my personality, I found the site to be totally intriguing. Is there some sort of formula to the inner-workings of our personality? Try out your name and see if it matches their description, it will cost you hours of productivity.
Ben Whitehouse

My middle name smacks of big slobbery dog jokes and yet my last name was the one kids poked fun at in school. They mostly just replaced letters like one kid called me Bobens. What's the lesson in this? Never name your kid / company something that has replaceable letters, ever. Try numbers. Nobody ever makes fun of those.
Joseph Bernard Tobens

Reminds me of the story my Colombian friend told.....in poorer areas of his country where the population aren't quite as literate they give their babies names like "Ous-narr-vey" (USNAVY), "oush-ma-ill" (USMAIL) and my special favourite being a Brit myself - "Lady-Dee"

Richard Mulley


I was finding that Kalabarian website interesting until I tried this name:

"The name of Shithead has made you serious-minded, responsible, and stable."

And then I decided it was bunk.

As several critics of Freakonomics have pointed out, the story about a baby being named Shithead is an urban myth. It rather undercuts Leavitt's claims to be purely interested in verifiable statistics and the conclusions he can elucidate from them.

One of your other commenters, in fact, provides a classic example of the spread of urban myth: "classics that friends-of-friends have encountered". Well, that's a good source for information.

See Urban Legends Reference Pages for details.

Lance Knobel

My mother used to work in Medical Records at a hospital and never recovered from the babies named Latrina and Placenta.

I actually do some naming and worked at a firm that did naming and brand platforms. The most important things I learned were to limit the number of people with input, and to establish generally agreed-upon, objective criteria for what the name is meant to convey. It's immensely useful to put some left-brain fenceposts around what can be a severely right-brain process. Otherwise it never gets done, there's always someone who "just doesn't like it" but has no more useful contribution. You've got to distill the ineffable je ne sais quoi down into something that's clearly, you should pardon the term, effable.

Say -- that's nice. I'm gonna name my daughter Effable Marie...

People analyze too much. Names are a bit like pasta. They dont mean anything until you add some sauce. In this case the sauce is the product and branding etc. Good names are easy to say and are memorable. Only in some instances are names interesting in their own right, and that's when the name is the brand...such as someone's name (ogilvy...Ford...dyson etc). These are the filled pastas.

How you visually express a brand can totally change the meaning of the brand name. And people don't think about names. Lexus doesnt mean anything. But the product and the branding does. It's just a tag. The Ford Edsel flopped because it was a bad car. Not because it was called Edsel.
lee newham

I think michael makes one miscalculation.
Although Unisys and Xerox are successful names, are they "good" names? As a project manager for A Hundred Monkeys, i'd say 'No'.
You don't necessarily need a good name to succeed as a business, but if you're in a possition to be able name a product or company well, it's an oppourtunity you should probably take. Yes, many companies do very well with bad names, but having a good name can only help. If you're trying to get attention and separate yourself from the pack, picking a good name is one of the best moves you can make.

Talk about names being good or bad is fairly meaningless in the branding business. The key attribute, the only one that really matters, is distinctiveness.

Just as a classroom full of John Smiths gets confusing, an array of product names that sound similar prevents any one brand from standing out. Effective marketing can build a successful brand out of just about any name, as long as it's distinctive among its competitors.

That's why you see many parents trying so hard to come up with unusual or even unique names for their kids. We in the naming profession have the same challenge.

By the way, the Edsel wasn't a bad car. It failed because it was the wrong model at the time, not because of poor quality. A name can't make a bad product good, nor can it make a good product bad. But releasing a luxury car when the public wanted an economy model has forever equated "Edsel" with "failure."
David Burd

Jobs | July 18