Making Things Up: Why Fake Words May Be Right for Your New Business Name

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The following excerpt is from Brad Flowers’s The Naming Book. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

There are two types of names you can create out of spare parts: compound and blended words. Compound words are still recognizable as names made of two words. Blended words go a step further — they’re sometimes recognizable, but not always.

Now let’s go one step past that: Let’s talk about creating words that don’t have any clear trace of their origins.

There’s a French term called bricolage. It roughly translates as “to tinker” or “DIY.” In art, it means that everything we create contains bits of other things. For instance, works by Picasso contain bits of Cezanne which contain bits of Pissarro. It may be that there aren’t truly made-up words but that they’re just cleverly disguised pieces of bricolage.

The main reason to create a brand name in this way is because you feel strongly that your company should have a unique name. It’s a bold way to go. Feeling bold? Here are a few ways to start creating new words.

Vowel Substitution

Pick some words from your brainstorming list of business name ideas. You can start changing the words by swapping out vowels. For instance, I picked the word “small” from my list. “Smoll” and “smull” don’t look or sound particularly attractive. “Smill” is interesting, though. And while I was positive I’d just made up this word, it turns out it already exists on the internet and has some meanings I might not want associated with my company. So, I’ll move on to other options.

Consonant Substitution

You can also try swapping consonants, though this is sometimes harder. Continuing with the “small” example, spall and stall are already real words. Sdall and Sball look like mistakes. Scall and skall are strange-looking and sound like “skull.” What about smahh or smaff? This is a tricky method of creating new words, but it can be worth it if you can get past the weird words you may produce along the way.


Onomatopoeia is when a word is spelled the way it sounds: Meow, chirp, roar, and tick-tock are all good examples. Try writing out the sounds of the things you hear. For example, if you like owls, try spelling the sound they make as you hear it. It probably won’t be “hoot,” although that is an onomatopoeia, too.

Here are a few made-up names:

  • Bebo
  • Etsy
  • Lexus
  • Häagen-Dazs

When making up words, there’s one good test you can use to determine if the word is likely to work well: the rhyme test. Is there a real word that rhymes with your made-up word? If so, it’s more likely the name will be adopted. That means the name has a common construction even if the letter combination is unique. You’ll notice there are rhyming words for each of the names in the list above: placebo, Betsy, Texas…OK, there isn’t really anything that rhymes with Häagen-Dazs. That’s because the founder wasn’t trying to create a word that sounded English. He wanted something that sounded Danish and that would position them alongside European confectioners.

When you make up a word, you’re choosing a name that doesn’t have a literal meaning. But you will have a significant advantage if it feels like a real word. Hold your names up to the rhyme test and see how yours fare.

Blended Words

A blended word is a new word that’s composed of two parts. It’s similar to a compound word in the sense that you’re creating a new word out of component parts, but the result is quite a bit different. The end name looks less familiar and stands out from the start. Here are some examples that were once very strange but seem obvious and familiar now:

  • Group + coupon = Groupon
  • Pin + interest = Pinterest
  • Unique + clothing = Uniqlo
  • Microcomputer + software = Microsoft
  • Accent + future = Accenture

In the examples above, what makes Groupon easier to say than Uniqlo? When creating these words, there’s one very important rule to follow: Avoid something called awkwordplay. The term describes a common mistake namers make when creating blended words. The idea was coined by Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle and creator of The Name Inspector blog. The term itself is an example of a common problem with blended words. It isn’t clear which syllable to emphasize. The first syllable of “awkward” and the first syllable of “wordplay” should both be emphasized. When they’re blended into “awkwordplay,” you don’t know which syllable to stress, the first or the second. It sounds weird either way.

So be clear which syllable is emphasized. Groupon follows this rule and is easy to pronounce, as is Pinterest. Uniqlo doesn’t do this, and the pronunciation is ambiguous. The second syllable of “unique” and the first syllable of “clothing” are emphasized. When they’re blended, it isn’t clear if the second or third syllable of “Uniqlo” should be emphasized. Because of that, the word feels awkward.

Pull 10 words from your brainstorming list. Use the methods outlined above to create 10 brand-new, made-up names.

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