Name That Product
Something of a Renaissance Man, I am involved in several "creative" projects at present. A colleague and I have decided to form a naming firm. You're familiar with these? One of the freakier manifestations of modernity, a naming firm is an entity whose purpose is to invent nouns for new products or services: to invent the identity those products or services take in the only true (or possible) virtual reality, language.It has been put forth by some French people that language constructs reality, rather than vice versa; in a rather strange turn of events, reality has become a set of clumsy tinkertoys beside the system invented to describe it. We need only utter, in order to create. For instance, when you say "table" I know you mean one of those flat things with three or four legs; you don't have to pull it out and show it to me. I make a table in my head from the directions encoded in your symbolic transmission ("table"), modifying it according to your directives -- adjectives, adjective phrases, and clauses -- adding the Victorian scrollwork, Danish planarity, Ikea anonymity, or (in the case of an embalming table recently described to me by a dealer of torture equipment, paintings by mass murderers, vintage pornography, and gruesome miscellany) the cunning ironpincers at the end, which hold the bowl into which flushed fluids drain.The fun of creating with nouns already in the general parlance is big fun, but not compared to the fun of inventing nouns for things that don't have them yet. In the first case, the noun inevitably refers back to some object in the real world; in the second case, the act is truly genitive -- godlike -- and that is very big fun indeed. The object in the real world becomes the physical embodiment of the noun designed for it: What is that thing? That is a Big Mac. The hamburger-ness, the special sauce, the double patty, the soft vegetables, the triple bun, the "build" (the order in which the ingredients are stacked; more important than you would think -- McD's research-and-development techs even invented a noun for it), and the distinctive pleasure of eating the thing, are all comprised by the noun.No one would deny that a Big Mac is tangibly different from a Whopper or Jumbo Jack. Space prohibits a comprehensive comparison, but we all know that the tangy whiffs from the paper bag are different, the spongy textures of the buns are different, the gristly juicy explosions on the tongue are different -- subtly different, but different. Coke and Pepsi are not different, as barrages of conclusively contradictory taste-tests conducted by each manufacturer have proved. Most everyone has a preference (speciously citing factors of syrupiness, foaminess, etcetera), but nobody can actually tell which is which. The difference is purely in language -- in what "Coke" suggests to me, compared to what "Pepsi" suggests. In parity-product markets (markets in which the products are not immanently distinguishable), the importance of the name eclipses the importance of the product itself. Coke and Pepsi could switch recipes with one another, and their advertising battles would proceed as they ever have; their switching names would be much more interesting to watch -- all the meanings ever attached to either one, dismantled and reassembled in new opposition.The biggest kick of all is inventing nouns for things that don't even exist. Sounds a little strange, yes, but these are funny times; changes in trademark laws in the 1980s made it possible to trademark names for nonexistent products. Corporations are hoarding names against the eventuality of having products to which to attach them, in a project slightly more ethically tenable than that of Internet-domain "brokers" (who tie up the rights to a domain name someone else will need -- the owner of the trademark on that name, usually -- and then offer to sell it back. Hurry, though: most of the easy ones are gone).In addition to big fun, there is big big money in names. An established naming firm charges upwards of $30,000 per name (a comprehensive trademark search is included). A car manufacturer, say, wants something to call their new line, something expressive, something solid: they call the naming company, and for 30 they get one choice, for 60 they get two, and I'm no mathematician but it's going to cost them three hundred grand for ten words! Geez! That's better than I do at Men's Health!The methods of these companies and the names they produce bear out the imaginings of our most paranoid novelists. Interband brought you Prozac, and the millennial palliatives Xanax, Zoloft, Paxil, and Wellbutrin all seem to refer (un)comfortably to Huxley's sleepy Soma. In fact, Soma was the brand name typed on one of the little amber canisters in my grandmother's medicine drawer when I was a kid (and boy did that baby deliver -- I got lost on the way down to the pool one day). Don DeLillo's edgy speculation about computer-generated brand names in White Noise finds its form at a company in San Francisco where proprietary software composes morphemes into monikers. Lexicon, in Sausalito, Calif., is big on focus groups and exciting interactive word games, which are duly given trademarked names. Will Self limns the process in his incomparable novel My Idea of Fun; the project is an "edible financial product" to be distributed from perspex kiosks throughout London, and the naming group at DF & L and Associates finally settles on "Yum-Yum."My partner and I have a small difficulty, one we must surmount before we can get on with things: we haven't decided what to call ourselves. Or rather, we each have decided separately. Personally, I'm in favor of BlackBox[trademark symbol]. It has a nice menacing ring to it, which I think is appropriate to the ubercapitalist nature of the endeavor; and it suggests by its obscurity what no other naming firm acknowledges, but everyone knows: Either you're good at making names, or you're not. My partner thinks we should be Tag[tm symbol]-- he's a little more playful than I am, and of course his name has the advantage of actually describing what we make and what we do. (We're not opposed to Dick Morris-style policymaking. Readers should attach their opinions on the BlackBox[tm symbol]/Tag[tm symbol] issue to their letters of more general criticism.) Actually, that was a joke. We've decided to settle our disagreements by means of an exciting interactive game called TagTeam[tm symbol], in which we wrestle sweatily.To back up the incredible fees, a naming company needs a shtick, and in the meantime we have perfected ours: Quiddity[tm symbol]. It's an antique philosophical term, which comprehends both the substance and qualities of an object -- what it is, and what distinguishes it from the rest. Derived from Latin, "quiddity" translates roughly to "what-ness." We break that down a little bit for clients, though -- not everyone wants to hear about Latin! Instead of saying that a name evinces quiddity, we at BlackBox[tm symbol]/Tag[tm symbol] say that a name Gives Good Q (also [tm symbol], I'm afraid).This interest in naming naturally devolves to an interest in titles -- of books, of magazines -- where multiple quiddities often operate. Here we are in Might, after all. I know: The editors pretend they're "over" the pun. But note that they continue to print references to it, in letters from retarded readers and in ironic injunctions to mention it in queries. The risibility of puns, and of repetition, and of unnecessary umlauts and quotation marks, is truly endless.As a further expression of my post-mod Renaissance Manhood, I decided to write a book of essays -- about writing. The first thing to do, of course, was come up with a title for the book; this seemed like the kind of project I should pitch to a publisher before I went to the trouble of writing it. I went down to the local bookstore to get acquainted with the competition. It's the kind of bookstore I love to hate, with free herbal tea and an entire well-lit floor devoted to aromatherapy candles and Deepak Chopra; there was a half-acre freestanding airy nook of non-fiction books about writing. I noticed a preponderance of puns in the titles, which I will not list except for my very favorite, Writing In a Convertible with the Top Down. Why in the fuck would you do that? I wondered -- but only for a second. I was off and running. I wanted to have a clever pun like that in the title of my book, and spent the rest of the day at the store, looking on all seven floors for book titles with multiple quiddities -- again, to see what the competition looked like. I think I found a clear winner, and not where I expected it.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (but you don't) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (so don't tell me again) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (but not how, when, etc.) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (but why do the other birds?) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (but why is the monkey so silent?) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (but why is it smoking cigarettes?)Needless to say, I went into a depression. By refusing to give any single word in the title definitive stress, Maya Angelou forces us to place stress on every word but the article; if we don't follow her metrical directive, we're forced into one of the parentheses. Six full stresses in seven syllables, six possible meanings, and without even resorting to a dumb pun -- you try it. I know I'm not up to it.I felt so deeply unmanned that I went back to the section of books about writing and started reading them. They started to cheer me up. In general they had a warm, democratizing tone, and there was little mention of talent or lack of it. Maya Angelou, I reasoned, was our National Poet Laureate -- it was a trifle hubristic of me to imagine that I could think of a title that gave such good Q, in so many ways, no matter how hard I thought about it. The secret to writing, it seemed, was just "being yourself." As I sat there flipping through the volumes on the comfortable sofa, sipping tea and allowing one of the employees to give me a little foot-rub, I forgot entirely that I was a total asshole -- and "being myself" would be a pretty bad idea.The book I was reading when my inspiration came was Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott -- a writer toward whom I felt an affinity because she's from Marin County, where I grew up; and she's also my friend Steve's sister. I had read her novel Hard Laughter (there we go again!) and loved it; I had no such hopes for this one. I was reading Bird by Bird in hopes of fuzzy encouragement, but expecting to retain the sense of smug superiority I felt toward the authors of every other book in the nook (Goldberg et al.) with the exceptions of Strunk and White. Much against my will, I found myself actually liking it -- I don't like to like nice books about how to write, even if they make me feel better. The title refers to an event in Lamott's childhood, when her other brother was flummoxed by the prospect of starting on a school report about a certain large subset of birds. Their father, a writer himself, said, "Take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird." If that isn't good advice, I don't know what is.Metaphor, rather than pun or metrical hijinks, forks the meaning; Mr. Lamott's admonition is apposite whatever the topic of your report. But I thought of the artistic process somewhat differently, if not entirely originally. I believe it is in Civilization and Its Discontents that Freud posits infantile shitting as the first artistic production, from which others follow. While some of his ideas are a little nutty, that one strikes me as ineffably right. Our written words are byproducts of what we have consumed. Sometimes they rush out loose and fast; sometimes we must strain for them; sometimes, sadly, they do not come at all, but there is always hope for tomorrow.Turd by Turd (one turd at a time) Turd by Turd (a book, by me) Turd by Turd (side by side, like napping seals)There it was. Phenomenal treble quiddity; stylish but not too fancy. Interested publishers may contact me in care of this magazine.