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Yahoo!: Product naming bites back

Origin of a species

Drawing: “Top Yahoo,” by Luis Quintanilla. From 1947 Crown Publishing edition of Gulliver’s Travels. (With permission, from

It always interests and often amuses me that some big players in technology seem to be tone-deaf when it comes to choosing a name for their brand or product. What they do is end up looking like … well, a Yahoo!.

In fact, if naming is a gauge of skill using the tool language, Yahoo! reflects a marked lack of skill.

The first rule of naming is to make sure you know the meaning of the word you choose for a product or service. And a word’s etymology (its origin and history) is crucial. Who would name their company Titanic Inc., or Hitler LLC?  Well, the fellows at Yahoo! — to the delight of fellows like me — didn’t do their homework.

The word Yahoo derives from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. And if you think that book is a children’s fable about little people and big people, you’re mistaken. It is one of the most savage satires in the English language. Gulliver made four voyages during his travels; the last was to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.

There he encounters the country’s namesakes, talking horses who are completely rational, but devoid of emotions and without a word for “to lie,” calling it “to say a thing which is not.” These horses rule over the Yahoos, about whom Gulliver says, “I never beheld, in all my travels, so disagreeable an animal.” To ward off their attacks, Gulliver puts a tree at his back, hanger (his sword) in hand, but

Several of this cursed brood, getting hold of the branches behind, leaped up into the tree, whence they began to discharge their excrements on my head….

Drug companies have gone to the other extreme, an antipsychotic  is somatized as Seroquel, or Effexor an antidepressant sounds like an energy drink. My personal favorite in the overreaching-naming category is Oldsmobile’s Achieva. Anybody remember that junk flash of the 80s? And is it poetic justice Mr. Ransom Olds (double trouble there in branding) realize that the now sunk Oldsmobile brand may have been better off without his name.

Coda: January 2017

I don’t know what the valuation of  Yahoo was when I wrote this screed maybe 3½ years ago and what it is now. Look it up if you’ve been in a coma.

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Posted in Communicate, Communicate Your Technology
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