What's in a name? Quite a lot, as Liverpool city councillors found out last week. Their proposal to rename Penny Lane - arguably the city's most famous thoroughfare, thanks to that Beatles' song - has drawn worldwide opprobrium.
The council set out with worthy, if ingenuous, intentions; they were debating whether to change the names of all their suburban streets that are named after people linked to the slave trade - Penny Lane recalls the 18th-century slave trader, James Penny. Possible substitutes included homages to those who worked for the abolition of slavery, including William Wilberforce, or a tribute to the black teenager Anthony Walker, murdered in a racist attack in the city last year. But, faced with planetary wrath and ridicule, the council immediately rowed back. "It was never our intention to remove all street names associated with slavery," said councillor Barbara Mace, who put forward the original proposal. "The idea was simply to rename several of the streets named after the more notorious slave traders and replace them with the names of people who've done something positive." But, as local Beatles experts have been quick to point out, the Japanese tourists being photo-graphed by the street sign already associate the thoroughfare with blue suburban skies rather than human bondage; and "William Wilberforce Way is in my ears and in my eyes" doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?
The controversy over Penny Lane is the latest example of the significance we attach to names and the problem of finding the perfect one. "The name of something - a product, a street, your child - is hugely important," says Tom Blackett, group deputy chairman of the branding consultancy Interbrand. "The right name piques interest, engages the emotions and draws you in; the wrong name turns people off and can kill a product stone dead." And, given an exceptionally crowded marketplace in which words are more highly charged than they've ever been, the naming of everything from paint to people has become both an art and a science, with its attendant trends and what-were-they-thinking-of howlers.
Streets: Cry freedom for a swanky address
"Street names are often outward indications of wider civic thinking," says Dr David Mills, author of dictionaries of English place names. "They can change overnight as leaders become discredited and heroes become villains."
The prime example of the merry-go-round approach to street-naming can be found in Russia, where revolutions and putsches have seen Pushkin Squares give way to Lenin or Trotsky Boulevards to be superseded by Stalin Prospekts, only to revert to Lenin Boulevards, then to be renamed Yuri Gagarin Avenues, only to re-revert to Pushkin Squares. (A recent, unofficial move to rename a central Moscow street Slobodan Milosevic Prospekt was, though, nipped in the bud).
As Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie once (almost) sang, one street's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. Tehran's Khaled Islambouli Street - named for the assassin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat - is a stone's throw from Bobby Sands Street.
Back in the 1980s, when Nelson Mandela, left, was in prison, Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan wanted a name that would instantly convey a graffiti-ridden, sink estate tower block. He came up with Nelson Mandela House. Now, post-Rainbow Nation, there are more than 100 roads and buildings in Britain named after Mandela, including Mandela Street in north London, billed as "one of Camden's most exclusive addresses", with prices for its mews houses starting at well over £500,000.
Paint: Elephant's Breath, a sign of good taste
You can sympathise with paint manufacturers; after all, there are only so many ways to say blue, yellow, or even pistachio. "What we try to do when we're coming up with colour names," says David Oliver of Paint Library, "is evoke feelings or conjure images to inspire people. They can be descriptive, humorous, romantic or bizarre. How someone interprets a colour is as much tied up in the name as in what their eyes are telling them."
It's not hard to decode the likes of Dulux's Aegean Cruise - a balmy azure with a hint of ouzo - or Delhi Bazaar, an exotic spicy red. But what colour is Tethered Dog? "It's the off-white of a golden retriever or gun dog," explains Oliver. "It's sort of telling a little story, to help the visualisation process and distinguish it from other colours in the same family - this one's perhaps a little sportier. Plus, it helps keep us amused." This is perhaps also the explanation for Paint Library's racy beige known as Divine Brown.
Oliver says that colour appellations can help conquer a condition he calls "paint analysis paralysis - the way a colour might look in different light conditions. For instance, we have a deep red that we call Very Well Read; this suggests that it's suitable for enhancing dark, clubby rooms like libraries."
Over at Farrow & Ball, similar psy-ops techniques are practised; Elephant's Breath, for example, is a stone colour that's somehow simultaneously heavy and ethereal (though F&B director Tom Helme concedes that it could be "a little slimier"). Meanwhile, Mouse's Back is a more diminutive and much squeakier variation on the grey palette.
"Colour naming has come a long way in the past 10 years," says Oliver. "We used to get everything from food or the landscape. Now names are more provocative and romanticised. The only iron rule is that they have a connection to the hue."
That is scant comfort to those who, when asked the shade of their living-room walls, are obliged to answer, Pelican Throat.
Products: Drive it or eat it, but never, ever change it
"The holy grail when naming a product," says Tom Blackett of Interbrand, "is to find something simple and instantly comprehensible to everyone."
He cites Abba as a perfect example; "It was their initials, it made a great logo, and everyone understood it instantly."
Distinctiveness also helps.
"Think of something as mundane as car insurance," he says. "The company name will stake out a certain territory and add an emotional layer to the decision process. Direct Line says you can do it now, quick and no-nonsense; Churchill has a more reassuring, even paternal tone."
How are product names actually arrived at? Blackett, whose company has come up with Mondeo and Xanax, among others, illustrates the process with Interbrand's biggest coup: HobNobs. "McVitie's came to us with what they described as a 'turbo-charged' digestive biscuit," he says.
"They wanted something that emphasised its extra ingredients, like Oaty Cereals or Cereal Oaties, but we thought it should have a much stronger name.
"We got together a panel of seven or eight people - all Scrabble players, crossword puzzlers, word-nuts - to brainstorm. Someone said the biscuits were knobbly, and that was it: HobNobs. It had all the right connotations - ovens, cosiness, chatting over tea - but McVitie's were unsure until the ad agency came up with the 'One nibble and you're nobbled' slogan. Then they were all over it."
Blackett counsels that product names, once decided on, should never be changed. "It's a fatal disruption of the emotional connection," he says. "Marathon was changed to Snickers because that's what it was called in the rest of the world, but sales plummeted, and people still go on about it like they'd been robbed of part of their childhood.
"CocoPops became ChocoCrispies but very soon reverted to CocoPops.
"And I'm still a little unsure as to why Jif became Cif."
Perfume: Risk, allure or the Orient - in a bottle
"Brand promise is created by a name, especially where fragrance is concerned," says James Craven of Les Senteurs, a specialist perfumery in Belgravia. "Scent itself is ethereal and almost subliminal, so good names are powerfully suggestive; do they conjure up an image or suggest emotional implications or attributes?"
For Craven, the best perfume names summon up a "story" to back up the scent; Guerlain's Shalimar, for instance, with more than a hint of the Orient. Its name means "temple of love" in Sanskrit, and it was inspired by the Indian emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Shalimar garden in Lahore as a tribute to his wife (and went on to build the Taj Mahal as further homage after her death). Or the same company's L'Heure Bleu, which, according to Craven, calls to mind "twilight, the reflective hour, when you meditate on transience and lost love".
Today's perfume names often dispense with such poetic niceties and settle for "globally appropriate" haikus. These can be po-faced - Truth, Eternity, Angel - or vaguely transgressive - Opium, Addict, Higher, Crave. "Will we soon have Junkie by Cacharel or OD by Dior?" wonders Craven. "Names are chosen more by global branding marketers these days than by the perfumers themselves, which is why they're becoming 'edgier' and, paradoxically, duller."
But companies ignore "globally appropriate" names at their peril. Givenchy's latest launch, a perfume named Ange ou Démon, is meant to invoke "the two sides of woman; the angel and the devil that lurk within", to British ears, it sounds more like a chav-tastic couple named Ange and Damon.
Image-obsessed celebrities are usually too canny to fall into these traps when launching their own perfumes; Liz Taylor's White Diamonds suggested opulence, while Britney Spears's Curious certainly reflects her parenting techniques. But, while Alan Cumming's image may be that of an omnisexual Puck, his Cumming: The Fragrance is perhaps a little too upfront. "It certainly conjures up an image," says Craven, with some distaste, "but a rather unsavoury one."
Children: I name this child Malibu Becks Truth...
There could be no more unholy mix of the faddish and unscientific than the naming of children. "Often, parents come up with something that may have special significance to them, without thinking about how it will affect the child's social interactions," says Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard.
The most popular names may continue to be the no-nonsense Jacks and Emmas, but the all- nonsense Chardonnays, Beauregards and Cornishas are gaining ground.
"You'll almost be hard-pressed to find traditional names or spellings on school registers," says Wattenberg, adding that current top trends are Old Testament revivals (Joshua, Moses, Ruth), destinations (Brooklyn, above, India, maybe even Machu Picchu, but few Grimsbys or Port Talbots), and names with "deeper meanings" (Destiny, Justice, Integrity - not much to live up to there, then).
The trail has been boldly blazed by celebrities and their Apples, Satchels and Blankets. Just recently, the actor Jason Lee named his son Pilot Inspektor, while comedian Penn Jillette called his daughter Moxie CrimeFighter. But a professor of psychology, Cleveland Evans, has discovered an even more outré development - children being named after brand names. After surveying US social security records, he found almost 300 girls named Armani, seven boys named Del Monte, and two boys named ESPN - after the TV sports channel.Reuse content