Clive Chafer has a wonderful thesaurus

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Clive Chafer has been a namer for almost as long as naming has been a profession. In 1987, he started at the firm now known as Lexicon, where he helped develop a few names you definitely know, like PowerBook for Apple and Outback for Subaru. He went on to eventually become creative director at Master-McNeil in Berkeley, California, and he now runs his own firm: Namebrand. Clive also does freelance naming work.

Clive and I dove right into a conversation about his process for name generation, which led us to a discussion of "sound symbolism." I brought up the bouba/kiki effect (but couldn't remember what it was called) and Clive pointed out that, "whether it's consonants or vowels, you can build something just on sound symbolism that will have certain tonalities and associations, even if the brief is very abstract. We linguists are not left entirely adrift."

Clive talked about his "wonderful thesaurus" from the late 60's (so good luck getting a copy).

  Clive Chafer's well-used Roget's Thesaurus

Clive Chafer's well-used Roget's Thesaurus

He listed a handful of other online ad offline tools* he uses while naming, e.g.:

  • Wikipedia
  • Foreign-language dictionaries (online)
  • Forvo.com (to hear native speakers pronounce foreign words)
  • OneAcross.com (a crossword dictionary, especially useful when length is a consideration)

Clive talked about keeping the creative juices flowing by stepping away from a project for a bit and exercising, going out with friends, or doing a DIY project. He listed a few pitfalls young namers (and more experienced ones) can fall victim to, and proposed some solutions. Lastly, Clive shared his favorite thing about being a namer: "It keeps the brain young."

If you want to learn more about Clive or get in touch with him, check out wemakenames.com. You should also check out the interview Clive did with Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered. Below, you'll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on iTunes to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.

* To see a complete list of online resources listed by namers in episodes of How Brands Are Built, see our Useful List: Online/software resources used by professional namers.


Rob: Clive, thank you so much for making time to speak with me. I'd love to just talk about process, and given how long you've been doing this, I figure if anyone has a process—I'm talking specifically about when you sit down to start generating ideas—where do you start?

Clive: I knew in advance you were going to ask me this, and I had to sit and think for a moment about whether or not there is a start point, or indeed a process. Yes, there is a starting point. And, having been a project manager as well as a creative, I know a little bit more now about how those two things work together, and the brief is incredibly important in how well the creative process develops and how well it goes. And it may well be proved to be—as you probably know—way off track after the first or second round of creative. Back to the drawing board. But in terms of the actual creative process, I start narrow and broaden out. So if I get a brief, whether it's couched in single-word naming directions or explained content, I will draw up a list of words and word parts that I think might be useful. Now how do I get to those? Well, partly from the words that are already given to me in the in the brief. And then from there, broaden out to closely associated ideas, concepts, and directions. And I think, yes, I definitely use the thesaurus, but it really depends on the nature of the project whether the thesaurus is going to be a useful tool or not.

Rob: Right.

Clive: If you get a name, this rarely happens, but if you get a brief that says, "This name needs to have no content whatsoever," because perhaps it's a name for a company and they don't want to be tied to any one activity.

Rob: Sure, a name like Avaya, or something ,  a coined...

Clive: Yeah, or Hulu or something like that. You know if you're going to do that then there's not a lot of point in going to the thesaurus. I mean, the truth is that most names have something about them that does relate back to what they do. You just mentioned Avaya. If you kind of pick that apart for sound, the idea of 'a way,' "via," is buried in there somewhere. And so the idea that a buyer is a communications company and that it's providing the means the "via" for communications. Okay. Yeah. You know, it's not too many steps away from the thesaurus.

Rob: Right.

Clive: So sometimes, even when it seems like they want to take a step away from real-world vocabulary, you still can start with that kind of mindset, if you like—that kind of relatively pedestrian research that says, "Let's put together as many words that word parts that are relevant to this as possible, and let's use those as the springboard," rather than trying to find something entirely meaningless out of nothing, out of whole cloth, if you like.

Rob: Yeah, I find that that's really hard to do. You end up sort of wandering aimlessly.

Clive: Well yes. Now this is where, going back to Lexicon, I met the chap who was their kind of linguistics expert. His name's Will Leben—lovely chap—who I've come to know as a friend as well, and the exquisite irony of Will Leben is that he is almost entirely deaf. He is a linguist who doesn't really hear language the same way that we do. Plus which, his specialism was what they call "sound symbolism" or what he called "sound symbolism." And he really developed the idea of sound symbolism and it's not a particularly deep science, but short, high sounds tend to suggest things that are smaller, and larger, longer, deeper sounds tend to suggest things that are bigger. So, "Pixi," has to be something small. You don't know what it is, necessarily, although obviously a pixie is a little creature. But sound symbolism is a somewhat disputed area of linguistics and it's very culturally confined, but it does work as a way to look at the tone—the tonality, if you like—of what you're trying to put across. These are things that work without meaning, without semantic meaning.

Rob: Right, and to some degree across cultures. I hear what you're saying, it certainly is culturally specific to a degree, but I think I've seen—and I'm not sure whether this would have come from Lexicon or if it's actually just from social psychology—but this diagram with two drawings, one of which is pointed and sharp looking, and the other is just a bunch of curves and swirls, and then there are two made-up name options underneath them, and one of them has hard stops in it like "t" and "k" and the other has, like you said, liquids, more vowels, more soft fricatives "s" and "f" and "v." And it's, I believe the finding is that across pretty much every culture, people choose the same way that the harder sounds, so to speak, go with the pointier made-up object and vice-versa.

Clive: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Now what cultural associations they make with that can vary. But yeah, I mean by and large, that works and it works particularly well across all the romance languages. It's a little harder in the Germanic languages, but anyway, yes you're right. I mean whether it's consonants or vowels you can build something just on sound symbolism that will have certain tonalities and associations even if the brief is very abstract. We linguists are not left entirely adrift.

Rob: Well, if you'll bear with me getting into the weeds a little bit on process: Let's start with timing. Do you generally sit down for a certain number of hours with any given brief? Do you have any kind of consistent approach along those lines, just with regard to timing?

Clive: It's not entirely consistent but there is a pattern. When I first sit down with a brief, there very often quite quickly comes a point within an hour or so where I'm banging my head against a brick wall—where I've got through the obvious stuff, I've made the obvious connections and made the semantic and language word parts and phonemes, and so on, and listed them, and come up with some names based on them, and so on. And then I kind of go, "Ok, what's next?" I have found personally, that if I break off then, that isn't going to help. That's actually a barrier that I have to work through, so I generally don't want to start a project unless I've got about at least four hours clear in front of me.

Rob: Wow.

Clive: Because I find that a lot of really good stuff comes after that point where you're going, "Wow, this is a tough one. I don't know that I'm going to be able to come up with a lot of stuff for this." And then you just have to keep pushing back the borders of your own immediate responses to a brief. And that's the problem. I've been doing this for so long now—you know for 25 plus years—that there are tracks in my brain. And to get out of those ruts, you need to make associations that you haven't made before, or least if you have, it was a while ago and you can't read them. And I find that I need to work through that barrier rather than walking away at that point. Now, having said that, there then comes a point about—you know, whether it's 4 hours, or whatever in—where you've then had a little breakthrough and suddenly there's been this strangely rich period of productivity. And then I think, frankly, the brain just gets tired, and that's the point at which I take a break.

Rob: Ok.

Clive: And yeah, it helps if you can go away for 24 hours. There are other things you can do as well. Exercise is terrific at reframing the brain, at you know throwing the pieces up and letting them fall down in different places.

Rob: Do you find that when you are exercising—or just, you've gone away from being immediately focused on the project itself—do you find yourself still thinking about it, and that sometimes ideas will pop up and maybe you'll need to quickly find a way to jot them down before you forget? Or do you really feel like you push it out of your brain for a while?

Clive: Both. I find that I can definitely push it out of my brain for a while. I find that if I do go off and do something else, I'm not thinking about it. But ideas will come to me and it's clearly there in the subconscious, because something out of apparently nowhere will come and will relate back to what I'm working on—the project that I'm working on. And I'm not making any conscious effort and in fact, some of the best associative ideas—associated ideas—come from doing something completely different, but there's suddenly this connection with what you're doing or with an idea that you have to what you're working on. And your brain reminds you, or at least it does me, that this is an idea you might want to capture for what you're working on. But I never go to bed when I'm working on a project without a pad next to the bed. My partner, Christian, will tell you, I quite often turn out the light, five minutes later, I turn the light back on, because that moment between sleep and waking is absolutely the best time for my best ideas.

Rob: Do you use a pad otherwise, or is it just for that space specific context. I was gonna ask anyway, do you work in Microsoft Word or something like that as you're coming up with ideas, or do you tend to stick to pen and paper?

Clive: It used to be pen and paper. Partly that was because one of the great things about naming is you can do it anywhere, and I used to do it in the back of the tour bus when I was touring a theatrical production, and then it was definitely a pad, because laptops were way too big and expensive back in the nineties to do it any other way. But occasionally I'll do it with a pad if I'm travelling and getting a laptop out is a hassle, or whatever. I still make notes on pieces of paper. But generally, I work in Excel now. I used to work, for years I worked in Word, till I realized that actually, it's easier to manipulate data in Excel even if it's just text data.

Rob: And what about, you mentioned the thesaurus earlier. Do you do you favor any particular thesaurus, whether it's print or online?

Clive: I have a wonderful thesaurus...

Rob: That sounds like a book, then. Not a website?

Clive: Absolutely. I was awarded this. I was actually able to choose the modern languages reading prize at my secondary school—my high school—I won for reading a Russian poem, and was awarded Roget's Thesaurus in nineteen sixty...I can't remember, eight, or something like that, and it still has the sticker inside that says, "Modern Languages Reading Prize, Awarded to Clive Chafer."

Rob: Congratulations.

Clive: It's not because of that, although it's wonderfully battered now, because he used to go to Lexicon, it used to go to Master-McNeil, and so on. But it has words in it that I've never found in any other thesaurus. It's a treasury of the English language. I was given more recently I think a Bartlett's Thesaurus, which was given by a namer who said, "This is absolutely the best thesaurus I've ever found." And it's very good, and it has a lot more modern usages in it than my sixties tome, but it's nowhere near as comprehensive.

Rob: Right, it sounds like if you cross reference both, maybe you get the best of both worlds.

Clive: Absolutely, and I use both. I use them all the time, and I even use thesaurus.com although I pretty much hate it. But it's very convenient. So I do use it rather than lugging a book around with me. I find thesaurus.com is very poor at alternative meanings and concepts that are close to the words that you're looking up. There are some just outstanding omissions from thesaurus.com.

Rob: Are there any other books that you keep close at hand as you're doing naming aside from those two thesauruses?

Clive: Not for every project, no. I mean, clearly there are lots of books that I use, whether it's books on mythology or astronomy. You can get a lot of this online, as well, but I still like having...the way that you use a book is less linear than the way you use online resources.

Rob: Right.

Clive: And so, I like the fact that it takes me in different directions. If it's Bulfinch's Mythology, I end up looking at different things than I would if I had looked up Wikipedia for "Roman gods associated with agriculture" or something. Having those books around is very useful, but I would say that I probably use the thesaurus on 95% of projects that I work on, and then the Oxford dictionary and the other Bartlett's Roget's that I have, those I use pretty frequently as well. Beyond that, it's really specific to the individual project and brief.

Rob: What about websites other than dictionary.com, are there any that you just find yourself going back to or...you know, even if it's not on 95% of the projects, even if it's only 25%.

Clive: The things that I keep bookmarked are foreign language dictionaries and Forvo, which is a place you can go to to find the pronunciation of—by native speakers—of foreign words, which is kind of interesting.

Rob: Interesting, how's that spelled?

Clive: F-O-R-V-O dot com. There is one that I have been using in the last year or so. I think it's more of a crossword type dictionary. One of the parameters for a name is often length, and the thing about a crossword dictionary is that it will offer you solutions that are, you know, all the solutions that are five letters long. And that I find useful for projects where length is particularly important—if it's going to be on a name badge that has very little space, for instance. I think it may be OneAcross.com.

Rob: Oh. That makes sense, speaking of names.

Clive: What it lets you do, and this is what I was trying to think about earlier, is find every six-letter word of which the last three letters are "con," for instance. But at OneAcross you can put in three question marks, "C-O-N," and it will come back with everything in the dictionary.

Rob: Exactly. Yeah, this can be very helpful.

Clive: Yeah. And you can switch that around as well. You can make it "two blanks, "con," two blanks, or something like that. And it's surprising what it will come up with.

Rob: Is there anything that you've done to get past that inevitable writer's block at some point when you're on a naming project? Any tips or tricks for other namers to help? You mentioned working out; I think that's a great one.

Clive: Pretty much anything that takes you completely away from what you're doing is really what you need. I mean, going for a walk in the country, going for dinner with a friend. You'll get into conversation and your subconscious still has the brief in it, and you'll find that you'll find yourself bringing your pad out at the dinner table. "Excuse me a minute, can I just make a note, I just had an idea." And they all think it's very fun. "Oh, he's being creative again." So yeah. I mean it generally is not a social faux pas to do it. It opens up a whole new direction of conversation. As long as you walk away—physically walk away—and go off and do something else, whether it's a DIY project or whatever, it will help you to take a new perspective on what you're naming. The thing about exercise is that it's been scientifically proven to really help freshen up your brain.

Rob: I don't know how often you have the opportunity to work with newcomers to the field of naming, but I'd love to hear any tips that you have for them or any mistakes you see them consistently making that you think you could help them steer clear of.

Clive: I used to come into contact with them much more. It's funny, because back in the days of Lexicon, almost everybody did brainstorming sessions, which brought together—physically brought together—as many as a dozen people in a room. It did become obvious that a lot of people had...the way their brain worked meant that their creative output bore a very distinct resemblance across projects, even though those projects weren't necessarily related. So look at what you've put down as names over maybe five unrelated projects and look for patterns. And if you see them, be aware of them, so that you can break them.

Rob: That's interesting. So, I almost imagine printing out those lists and circling anything, or highlighting anything that you see across lists and recognizing your own biases.

Clive: Yes, exactly. Yeah, it is, it's biases. We all have ideas that we like and we are desperate to have them expressed in some form or another. And it's astonishing the lengths that we will go to to get them represented. And it's really good to be aware of them so that you can say, "Ok, I've got to be careful not to just fall into this pattern again," and find a way of breaking it, and find a way of expanding beyond it. And you can do that consciously. And if you don't do it, you'll probably find that unconsciously, you will continue to regurgitate the same stuff again and again.

Rob: It feels a little bit like when you're new to naming, it's more about just sort of what interesting words do you know? And you're very tempted to throw those words into the list, whether or not they make sense. And maybe the more mature you get, the more you really stick to what is the brief asking for, and start there, as opposed to just having hopefully too much of your own bias to put into it.

Clive: The other thing I would say—sort of advice to the young namer—is that you will be terribly disappointed, time and time again, by one, the names that get chosen, which will always be...they will always ignore the names that you think are the best.

Rob: That's so true.

Clive: And that's partly because a brief is a terribly inadequate way of communicating what a client actually wants. And it can be a very frustrating experience being a namer, because either you never find out what the client chose anyway, and you feel like you're just throwing this stuff into a black hole, or you find out afterwards that the whole directions—all the directions that you were working on—were not the direction they ended up going in. Or they abandoned the project, and it sounded wonderful, and you came up with all these great names. It's very easy to get dissuaded at that point and feel like a very small cog in a much larger wheel. And it's only by being a project manager as well as a creative that I have been able to understand how what I do fits into a bigger picture and not get frustrated about it.

Rob: Absolutely, and I remember as a junior namer, it's not only the client. It's also if you're junior and you're on a larger team, it's the rest of your team. I remember feeling like my boss didn't get it. You know, they didn't get the names that I'd come up with and they weren't choosing my best names to even present to the client.

Clive: The single biggest problem with naming, the single biggest thing that goes wrong from anybody's point of view, is that somebody in the company—somebody at the client—is not brought into the process early, even though they have veto power over the name. And very often, it's somebody down the line who is protecting their boss from getting involved because they don't want them to have to put time into this, and then they're saying, "No no no no, he's got much more important things to think about. We'll handle this." And then they come up with a name and they put it in front of this person who has not been involved, and he looks at it and goes, "No." And you know they, well, yeah. You know, the answer is no because you didn't ask him what the question was in the first place.

Rob: It's a classic problem and we've all seen it too many times.

Clive: It is the single-most frequent way that the wheels come off the project. You've got to involve them from the start. Ignore the fact that they have very busy schedules and that their calendar is all booked up. If you don't get them involved at the start, you are risking wasting everybody's time.

Rob: Well just the last question, just for fun: You've been doing this for so long, I'm curious what do you like about it? Do you have sort of a favorite thing about naming and name generation that makes it something that you want to keep doing?

Clive: Well I'm in my sixth decade now, and I am grateful for anything and everything that keeps my brain ticking over. It is really good to have something like this that makes me not just think conceptually around a problem but, as I said before, that gets me out of the ruts that my brain is in. When I come to a project, I try as hard as possible to make my brain do what is unfamiliar, because I really do think that that is part of what keeps my brain ticking over at a reasonably good level.

Rob: There you go, naming keeps you young.

Clive: Yeah. Keeps the brain young, certainly. Yeah.

Rob: Thanks again Clive.

Clive: You're welcome.

Rob: I'll talk to you soon.

Clive: Yep. Have a good day.

Rob: You too. Bye bye.

Clive: Thanks, bye.