Secrets of a Professional Namer
Novelist Caroline Leavitt, author of the New York Times bestselling Pictures of You, has had not one dream job but two. Before she became a full-time writer, she was a professional namer, naming not books or characters but everything from phones to bras. Her story:
I was writing high fashion copy at Macy’s when my boss asked me to come up with names for a new cosmetic shop. “Five hundred of them,“ she told me.
She wanted names that sounded Italian. (Plissamo. Glissatto.) Names that were Italian. (Fellini.) Names that sounded like Edenic places. (Bliss.) Names that were Edenic places (Roma, Paris, or yup, Eden.)
I sat down with a thesaurus and a dictionary and began making lists of names. Sometimes I rifled through magazines for inspiration, or sat there dreaming as one word seemed to flow into another. It took me about three days to come up with a list, but even then I wasn’t finished. Next the names had to go through legal to make sure no one else had already used the name, and if it was a good one, they usually had. This winnowed my list down quite a bit. Then they had to run it through a language test, because you didn’t want a name being chosen that meant “likes to sleep with goats” in Swahili.
But alas, as it often happens, none of my names were chosen because the shop was never built.
Still, I named kids’ dressing rooms (Presto Chango!) I named a bra (Barely There). I found to my surprise that I was good at it, and boy, was it fun.
When I began to work for a professional naming company, sometimes the client wouldn’t even tell me what the product was. Instead, I got a naming brief, which gave me clues to the feelings they wanted the name to convey. “Think ocean,“ the brief directed. “Give us names that make you think of surfing and speed.“ Razor’s Edge, I wrote. Wave. Foam. Leviathan. Only later did I learn I was naming a phone!
Once I named a kids’ website, Ruby Sneakers. I was so proud of that name and my boss was ecstatic. The sneakers part of the name made it seem friendly, and the Ruby made the name seem downright Wizard of Ozish, full of adventure. However, when it got to legal, it turned out that the name would never fly. Ruby Sneakers was a bit too close to Ruby Slippers, and MGM owned that name.
The tanking economy dried up most of my naming jobs, but I still get to name in my novels. I name people and diners. My favorite is the Ready Diner, because the word Ready seems to generate the feeling that any moment, something is going to happen. I have a huge baby naming book by my desk for my characters. I spend hours reading names until the right one just gets to me. Last names can’t sound fake, like Evelyn St. Rain. It’s far better to use a name like Annie Sloshberg.
I admit, in our household we make up names for things as well as for people. A rurr is a dog. A toast is a blanket. Every time I look at a product, I think of a better name for it. Shouldn’t a toaster be called Crisp? Or a lip gloss Smooch? After all, every name tells a story. Just like the novels I write.
Caroline Leavitt is the NYT and USA Today bestselling author of Pictures of You, and eight other novels. She teaches novel writing at UCLA Writers’ Program online and she can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.
Illustration by bluekdesign