How to find good names
Good names do not fly out of the aether.
Most are found, which requires careful looking. Books are one of the best places to look, so if you’re looking to find great names the more you read the more you’ll be successful at finding hidden gems.
I’m always reading one or more works of both fiction and nonfiction — most recently, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, published in 1968. The book details the adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who staged several “acid tests” in the 1960s, and more broadly covers the counterculture and LSD movements in and around San Francisco during that time.
Unsurprisingly, I found some amazing names in Wolfe’s LSD-soaked pages.
I read for pleasure and as a way to be better at my job as a naming expert. I read on a Kindle Paperwhite so it’s easy for me to highlight a name and save it, then export and add it to my master list of good names. When I read works printed on paper I keep a notebook and pencil handy. Same idea. The key is to record what you find.
Reading with the goal of finding names is a different exercise than reading for pleasure. It took me a few months to get used to the new process. At first, it felt like I was reading the same book twice, like my mind was split — and it was. I read and reread many passages. However, after a few increasingly enjoyable months the processes became unified and automatic.
What am I looking for when I’m reading for names? Two things: Unusual words and unusual word pairings. Unusual words are words I don’t know or haven’t seen in a while and can’t readily define. If the word gives me pause, I write it down and look it up. Simple enough.
Unusual word pairings are a little harder to spot and require a new way of reading. Unusual word pairings make your brain do a double take. They can make you laugh, cringe, or trigger some kind of strong emotional response — stronger typically than one unusual word. They can lie in wait like this example: “Only lucky dogs and Merry Pranksters can understand this supersonic warble!” (emphasis my own).
Initially, a name like supersonic warble can be hard to spot. The key here is to focus on word pairings that you don’t normally encounter. One trick is to start with any slightly unusual word, warble in this case, and then see what the prefix and suffix is — what’s modifying the original unusual word to make it more dynamic, or powerful, or weird. If it makes your brain do a loop-the-loop, that’s a good sign.
The names that are the toughest to spot are word pairings where each word is commonplace, like in this example: “…and making their favorite satiric gestures to the cops, handing them flowers, burying the bastids in tender fruity petals of love.”
How them flowers is used in that sentence makes it harder to spot. Each word is ordinary so they fade into the background. These types of names take a slow reading pace and a curious eye to spot. But these are some of the best names because they’re so off-kilter.
Them Flowers is an odd and powerful name. It stops you in your boots and gives you pause. I still can’t quite fully decode it and that’s why I love it. We, as humans, are drawn to mystery and Them Flowers is a bit of mystery wrapped in a touch of beauty.
“Names can assume a different character when you abstract them from the sentences and paragraphs in which we’re accustomed to seeing them… Palace is unexpected for a skate company. For that matter, so is Girl. Mother as a name for an ad agency makes you stop and think. Elevating these words to leading roles in unfamiliar contexts makes for interesting names.”
— Eli Altman in the second edition of Don’t Call it That
If your goal is to find a great name, this is the most helpful exercise I can recommend. Like anything worth doing, it requires a level of effort. For that effort you’ll be rewarded, I assure you. For example, here’s a small portion of what I found in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:
Caliente Dude Triple
Petals of Love
Grass in the Dapple Shadows
Rusky Dusky Neon Dust
The above list is about an eighth of what I unearthed. You’ll notice a lot of them are two- or three-word names. I firmly believe that two or three-word names can be more powerful and interesting. In fact, I wrote a piece about it.
So the next time you’re looking for a name, pick up a great book, grab a notebook and pencil, and extract some shiny nuggets from that mother lode. Happy reading!