e-

How do you spell success? 'i,' 'd,' 'k'

Alphabet: High-tech companies comb the dictionary for catchy names, and change American vocabulary in the process.

April 17, 2000|By Dana Hall | Dana Hall,Knight Ridder/Tribune

"E" has become the nation's ubiquitous prefix: e-mail, eBay, e-commerce. You can purchase e-stamps, sign up for an eFax or ETrade account and e-file your taxes.

But these days, using the letter "e" as part of a name almost pegs a company as anything but edgy.

"You wouldn't want to call something 'e' so-and-so if you wanted the company to last more than five years," said Sam Birger, a linguist and president of Nomenon, a brand and identity firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "It is getting tired and hackneyed. I'm actually surprised at the staying power of 'e.' I didn't think it would last this long."

Well, say hello to "i," "d" and even "k."

Maybe it was the iMac, but now you'll find iBook, iFilm.com, iVillage.com, i-drive.com, iMotors.com and iCARumba. com.

"We were getting more and more frustrated," said iCARumba co-founder Bob Allison, recalling the Seattle-based auto and auto repair information site's search through hundreds of possible names. "None of the words worked or were available. It was like 'Ay, carumba!' Then we stuck an 'i' in front of it and it was like: 'Of course.' We like to think that we are ahead of the curve."

But "i" has given way to "d." dsports. com seems so much more hip than Dick's Sporting Goods. And there's "k," as in kforce.com, a job site. Adobe, the creator of Photoshop and type fonts, didn't stop at just one letter. It has launched Adobe InDesign with the "in" meaning "interactive."

"'E' starts to date you as a mid-'90s kind of company," said David Placek, president of Lexicon Branding in Sausalito. "'I' is much more late '90s. Bonding the 'i' with an image, like iMac, is a much better way to go these days."

It used to be that using the letter "e" immediately identified you as an electronic or Internet-related company. But since everything now seems to land in that category, companies are struggling to find new ways of distinguishing themselves.

And they have to be careful: today's consumers are open to creative ideas, savvy about advertising and quick to dismiss brands that don't captivate their imaginations. Because trademark and usage rights already exist for nearly every normal word, it's increasingly difficult to come up with something catchy that is still available.

As start-ups poach the dictionary in a frantic search for words to describe the new new thing, nouns like yahoo, Amazon, and fogdog have taken on entirely new meanings. With the race for names, the American vocabulary is being transformed.

"Any 14-year-old with $100 can register a name," said George Frazier, a partner at Idiom, a San Francisco-based identity firm. "All the common words are registered. The better company names are more provocative and consistent with the Internet personality. I love the name Fatbrain, but I still don't know what it does."

Fatbrain.com used to be known as Computer Literacy Inc. The day it changed its name, the stock price of the online seller of technical books, manuals and self-published material jumped 36 percent.

Linguists predict that words will become more interesting, in part because the pace of technological innovation is so extreme.

"It started with 'cyber,' back when all of this was an open and wondrous world," said Geoffrey Nunberg, a consulting professor of linguistics at Stanford University. "There was cybersex and cyberworship and cyberspace. Then 'e' comes along. That started with e-mail. Now you've got 'i' or the (at) sign. There's also 'digital,' 'digi' this and 'digi' that. There's been a huge influx of new words."

Technology has always influenced the American vocabulary. But particularly in the Bay Area, tech inspires an incredible wealth of slang and jargon: think of multi-tasking and monetize. Dot-com, which began as a mere symbol, has become an adjective and a verb: "Oh, the party was fun. There were a lot of dot-com people there," and "Is that dot-commable?"

Editors at various dictionaries say that their staffs closely monitor such words for possible inclusion in new volumes of their work.

"The percentage of technical language that impinges on the average person is rather small," said Michael Agnes, Editor in Chief of Webster's New World College Dictionary, from his office in Cleveland. "A lot of computer terms go out the window. But we do list 'e-' as a combining term. 'Html' has been an entry for a while. And 'dot-com' is one of the ones we are watching. We like to see a word have a solid track record over at least three years before including it."

Others observe that the peculiarities of chat room conversation short phrases, the use of symbols, lowercase letters are insinuating themselves into the mainstream.

"Online speech is becoming contemporary speech," said Ira Bacharach, president of the San Francisco-based NameLab Inc. "Capital letters are utterly useless. It's an extra keystroke. That is creeping into company names. In order to be hip you want your entire company name to be without caps and to use condensed notation. It's more efficient."

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