Operative Words


How to Name: Explore Concepts, not Words

To name well, you must name abundantly.

“Quality through quantity,” as pro-namer Amanda Peterson alliterated.

Isaac Asimov, also no creative slouch, quantified, “For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten-thousand foolish ones....” 

That’s hardly hyperbole. Most projects I work on see a few thousand name candidates, plus thousands more generated by corpora exploration and machine learning. Amassing that volume of name candidates might seem like an impossible task. It does require creative discipline and an exhaustive process, but with the right mindset, the right toolset, and the right techniques, original ideas flow endlessly. In a series of occasional posts, I’ll discuss the mindset, toolset and techniques that, in my experience, lead to prolific creation of original names.

My #1 tip for abundant name development: Explore concepts, not words.

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Concepts are intrinsically more generative than specific words because concepts can include other concepts.* A single big idea can encompass dozens of more-specific ideas each of which encompasses other, narrower ideas, and so on. It’s ideas all the way down! 

* For our purposes, think of concepts as abstract ideas. Words, on the other hand, are concrete by comparison. To explore concepts is to explore meanings (semantics) and abstract categories. Exploring words in name development would focus on their physical manifestation in phonology, morphology, and orthography. I am sure there’s a more elegant way to handle this distinction, and I look forward to your ideas in the comments. Linguists: I am grateful for your patience, kindness, and forgiveness.  

For example, in the chart below the higher-order concept living things includes plants and animalsanimals include insectsfish and mammalsmammals, in turn, are comprised of ungulates, primates, canines, and so on, proceeding until we reach the end of a category which terminates with specific animals. Canines concludes with dog, wolf, fox, etc.. 


This hierarchical arrangement also applies to abstract ideas and their relationships: The broad concept of action (meaning ‘something done’) includes ideas as diverse as play, select, consult, forbid, and change. Drilling down, we discover that there are many specific types of change: movement, adjustment, magnitude, updating, turning, reshaping, simplification, etc. Eventually we reach specific examples of a concept that don’t lead to other concepts. Just as canine ends with dog, wolf, and fox; movement taps out at piggyback, airlift, and teleportation.


Although concepts are abstract, their relationships are spatial. A big idea (e.g. change) is above a narrower related idea (e.g. movement). At the bottom of the hierarchy, specific examples and instances of a concept (e.g. piggyback, airlift) are “siblings” on the same level. 

Concepts and their relationships form a world, and it’s in that world where you should look for names. In this conceptual world, I imagine the broadest and most expansive ideas forming a canopy overhead. Thickets of subordinate ideas branch downward and outward. When an idea’s branch can branch no more, it terminates with all of the specific examples and types of that idea. I imagine those words, heavy like fruit, clustered in heaps on the ground. Some proliferate as mountains; others are meager molehills. 

For me, creative exploration is concept exploration. I climb, dig and crawl through concepts searching for the right ideas and the right words. Treating name exploration as an actual expedition inspires me and encourages creative exhaustiveness: I am less likely to leave areas un- or under-explored having visualized them as physical spaces. 

This disciplined, intentional exploration of concept hierarchies and semantic relations coincides with three creative techniques: Ladder up, drill down, crawl across

Ladder up from a word to identify its more general, “parent” concepts (“hypernyms”).  
Drill down into a word to identify specific types or examples of that word (“children” or “hyponyms”).
Crawl across from a word to identify closely related “sibling” ideas at the same level (“coordinate terms”).  

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Laddering up is particularly important for springboard generation; it opens up whole categories to explore. A word’s hypernym, being broader, leads to more opportunities for creative exploration than the word itself. Occasionally, we’ll find viable names among the hypernyms.

Drilling down and crawling across reveal examples and instances of a concept, rewarding us with prospective names related by strategy but differing in their specifics. Drilling and crawling reliably lead to viable names.

How To Ladder, Drill and Crawl when Naming

  1. Identify a single, significant keyword from your creative brief. 
    It could be an attribute that comprises the brand’s essence, a point of differentiation, or a dimension of the brand’s personality.

    To illustrate, let’s pretend the brand we’re naming should embody strength.

  2. From the keyword, strength, ladder up to identify and list broader concepts or categories that include that word. For example, strength is a type of:


  3. Explore each category in turn by drilling down, crawling through sister terms, or using other creative techniques. Let’s broadly explore properties, qualities and attributes: 


From here, we can drill further for examples into durability, personality, intensity, etc. to find ideas that align with strength. Durability leads to indelible, ballistic, ironclad. Strength in personality is hellbent, steadfast, gravity. Strong intensity is voltage, bombard, riot. Every one of these ideas is an interesting way of suggesting strength. And we’re just scratching the surface here. Explorations of rocks, physics, caricatures or weather would give us even more to work with.   

Here are a few resources that are immensely useful for concept exploration:

A database for exploring semantic relations. It’s free and it’s spectacular. Quicktip: Click the letter S next to a word to begin exploring its hypernyms, hyponyms, and coordinate terms. Works best exploring nouns and verbs.

Visual Thesaurus
Based on WordNet, Visual Thesaurus graphically represents semantic relations. Requires a subscription. 

Wordnik and RhymeZone
Both include hypernyms and hyponyms, though not as exhaustive as WordNet. Wordnik is excellent for drilling down.

Sketch Engine and Corpus of Contemporary American English
Both have powerful collocation functionality so you can find the words that appear near other words. A great resource for discovering related ideas. Sketch Engine requires a subscription. COCA is free up to a point. 

With the right mindset...  concepts are spatially related and great creative requires exploring concepts from all sides
and the right toolset...  your brain, WordNet, Wordnik, etc.
and the right techniques...  ladder up, drill down, crawl across’ll be amazed at the quantity and quality of your creative work. 

If you give all this a spin, I’d love to hear back from you in the comments. Was this approach effective for you? Did you find cool names? Were you more prolific? Did this post even make sense? Do tell!  Thank you!