How to Name: Explore Concepts, not Words

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To name well, you must name abundantly.

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

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

Getting to those ten-thousand ideas — foolish or otherwise — requires creative discipline and an exhaustive process. But with the right mindset, the right toolset, and the right techniques, your original ideas will flow and flourish. In a series of 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.

For our purposes, think of concepts as abstract ideas. Words, in contrast, are concrete by comparison. To explore concepts is to explore meanings (semantics) and abstract categories. In this framework, to explore words is to explore their embodiment in phonology, morphology, or orthography. I am sure there’s a more elegant way to handle this distinction between words and concepts, and I look forward to your ideas in the comments. Linguists: I am grateful for your patience, kindness, and forgiveness.  

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

In the chart below, the concept living things includes plants and animals; animals include insects, fish and mammals; mammals cover ungulates, primates, canines, and so on. Continuing down the hierarchy, we'll eventually reach the end of the lower categories where specific animals are grouped. For canines, we'll find dog, wolf, fox, and so on. 


This hierarchical arrangement also applies to abstractions: The broad concept of action (in the sense of ‘something done’) includes ideas as diverse as play, select, consult, forbid, and change. Drilling down into the concept of change, we find a diversity of related ideas: movement, adjustment, magnitude, updating, turning, reshaping, simplification, etc. Eventually we reach specific examples of a concept that doesn't lead to other concepts. Movement taps out with words like piggyback, airlift, and teleportation just as canine concludes with dog, wolf, and fox.


Although concepts are abstract, their relationships are spatial. A big idea (e.g. change) is above a narrower idea (e.g. movement). At the bottom of the hierarchy, specific examples and instances of a concept (e.g. dog/wolf and piggyback/airlift) are “sisters" on the same level, their lateral expanse commensurate with their number. 

Concepts and their relationships form a world, and it’s in that world where you should look for names. In this conceptual world, the broadest and most expansive ideas form 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 specific types of that idea. I imagine those words, heavy like fruit, clustered in heaps on the ground. Some are mountains; others molehills. 

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

Navigating through a hierarchy of ideas corresponds with two creative techniques: Laddering up and drilling down

Ladder up from a word to identify the broader concepts (“hypernyms”) that include that word.  
Drill down into a word to identify specific types or examples (“hyponyms”) of that word.  

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

Drilling down mines for examples and instances of a concept, rewarding us with prospective names related by strategy but differing in specifics. Drilling down reliably leads to viable names.

How To Ladder Up and Drill Down 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 happiness.

2. From the keyword, happiness, ladder up to identify and list broader concepts or categories that include that word. For example:


3. Explore each category in turn by drilling down, crawling through coordinate terms, or using other creative techniques. Let’s explore the broad idea of positivity


Some of these ideas like joy and nirvana are obvious, but others like abundance and up are not; they wouldn’t appear as synonyms of happiness in a thesaurus yet they might lead to great names that support or connote happiness. Concepts like abundance and up are entirely new spaces to explore.

Examples of abundance (Windfall) or things that are abundant (Harvest) could be great names for our brand. The general concept of up is vast with possibilities: Words and expressions that include the word up (and related words like above, high, and sky) or word parts like alt and lev; things that are up, go up, or suggest upward motion (birds, flight, lift), and on and on.   

These online resources 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 sister (coordinate) terms. 

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)’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!