Two years after the then new cloud-computing technology by Microsoft was named Windows Azure, Microsoft employees and partners are still wondering how to pronounce the name. Is that a good thing for product branding? Probably not.
Naming is a big part of terminology management. In her presentation for the last DTT symposium, Beate Früh, language service manager at Geberit International AG, a European producer of sanitary technology, described very well how she and her team support engineers in finding the right names, terms or labels for new products or parts (for examples see the adjacent image or the slide deck in German). One of the keys: The team comes in early in the process to help engineers find the best possible terms.
What are best possible terms or appellations? Obviously, each language has its own rules on term formation, as discussed in What I like about ISO 704. But here are the main criteria as well as a checklist that good terminology should meet, again courtesy of ISO 704:
- Transparency: Can the reader understand what the concept is about by looking at the term?
- Consistency: Is the new term or appellation consistent with the naming in the subject field? Or does it introduce new aspects at least very deliberately or only when necessary?
- Appropriateness: Are the connotations evoked by the designation intentional? And do they follow “established patterns of meaning within the language community?”
- Linguistic economy: Is the term or appellation as short as possible, so as to avoid arbitrary abbreviations by users?
- Derivability and compoundability: Is it easy to form other terms, e.g. compounds, with the new term?
- Linguistic correctness: Does the new designation conform to morphological, morphosyntactic, and phonological norms of the language?
- Preference for native language: Is the new term or appellation borrowed from another language? Or could it be replaced by a native-language designation?
Why would it take a terminologist to name things correctly? In the software industry, we used to say that programmers became programmers because they wanted to deal with 0s and 1s, not with words and terms. Similarly, product engineers are probably better with designing, developing, or testing devices rather than naming them. What’s more, they don’t necessarily think about what happens downstream, let alone set up entries in a terminology database.
Participants of the Life Science Roundtable at LocWorld yesterday in Seattle illustrated the necessity to deliberately choose terms and appellations early in the process, document them as well as their target-language equivalents and then use them consistently: After a device has gone through the regulatory process, even linguistic changes are extremely difficult, if not impossible to make. Tough luck then if a name doesn’t work very well in one or more of the other 25 target markets.
At Microsoft, most product names are run through a process called a globalization review. Marketing experts work with native-language terminologists on evaluating whether the above criteria are met. Some names obviously don’t get submitted. So, Aaaazure, Azzzzure…let’s call the whole thing off? No. But since I am now married to an “Azure evangelist”, I hope that the concept behind the appellation is really solid and makes up for the trouble we have with its pronunciation.
A very good point, thank you, Barbara. It coincides with a “coffee circle debate” I had with my colleagues a couple of days ago and an avalanche of negative comments in my country at the event when a well known car producer launched a new model in 2008. It is named “Kuga“, supposedly an allusion to the English pronunciation of “cougar”. Cougar should of course evoke the feelings of strength, natural beauty, soft and elegant movement etc. in the potential buyer . . . In my language “kuga” is plague, the feared black death of the middle ages! Figuratively it has the meanings of pest, nuisance, trouble and the like. We have phrases like “stinking like a plague” (to stink to high heaven ) and “spreading like plague”, both with an utmost negative connotation. Nothing to compare with the legendary Silver Shadow (RR)!
Ivan’s story reminded me of the tendency in the Asian automotive industry to name cars with Italian-sounding names, with some unfortunate results, such as Musso, which means donkey in some well-understood Italian dialects, and Sorento, which looks like a misspelling of Sorrento, the famous town overlooking the bay of Naples. Needless to say, neither car was very popular in Italy 😉
Global linguistic and cultural checks are a far more complex process than merely looking up words in foreign language dictionaries, assuming that if a name doesn’t “exist”, it’s safe to use in that market. As Barbara pointed out, spelling, pronunciation and prosody can evoke unwanted connotations which are not immediately obvious to non-linguists, e.g. the name Windows Vista, when pronounced with Italian strss and intonation, is perceived as “window svista” – too bad svista is an oversight or a mistake!
Burt Pierce says
Thanks for the discussion. I’ve been afflicted with confusion ever since the term arose.
I had something like this a few years ago with Linux. My son told me I could get it righi if I just remembered tha Linix rhymes with cynics.
Unfortunately, the initial vowel presents problems, but perhaps someone can think of a clever mnemonic.
Barbara Inge Karsch says
Ivan, Licia and Burt: You brought up some great examples that have much more negative connotations than Azure. If I wouldn’t now hear it on a daily basis, I would probably have forgotten about it myself. Naming of big new products, services or initiatives is a big deal. More often we need to help with coining terms for smaller things, such as the pipes in the picture or functionality on a screen, though. That can be just as or more difficult, receives much less attention during the design or development process, and yet can have a much more lasting impact for the user. For example, people might spend a minute to figure out how to pronounce Azure: That time adds up for the collective user base, but is negligible on the individual level. But if a user looses a minute or two every time they puzzle over a misnamed function, it will add up to a huge loss in productivity. Since it is much harder to track that cost than the bad press that, say, the name ‘iPad’ got, the business case is harder to make.