A Tribute to James Burke

Those of you old enough to have watched television in the 1980s may remember James Burke, host and driving force behind my all-time favorite science documentary series, Connections. In each episode, Burke would start with some scientific advancement, show how it led to other changes (in science, industry, or society), which would in turn lead to another development…and the show would wind up with something that most of us would not have connected to the initial “But for…” cause.

While I lay no claim to Burke’s erudition and elegance of thought, I’ve noticed that some of my posts here tend to mimic the Connections structure, usually by accident…but here’s one with a bit of design as well.

Let’s begin with a category…rideshare apps. This TechRepublic article lists 10 of them, some already household words, others you probably haven’t heard of…my personal favorite is number one on their list, Carma (listed in the article as “CarmaCarpool”)…because it flips the usual practice of changing a “c” to a “k”, and in so doing introduces the word “car”, in a nice pun. Also good:Rideout. Worst of the lot, IMO…Trees for Cars. If you had to guess, just from the name…a pine-scented air-freshener to hang from your rear-view mirror? (That said, they must be doing something right, as their web site is still around, while the [IMO] better-named SideCar and RideScout are now out of business.)

But the two you have heard of, the market leaders, are there largely because of early-mover advantage, not because they picked particularly good names: Uber and Lyft. When I first heard of these, I was of the opinion that Lyft definitely had the better name. However, though these both generate billions (that’s with a “b”, and plural), Uber is about 5 times the size of Lyft. My thoughts…

Well, if you had founded a U.S. cab company in 1949 instead of 2009, my guess is that you wouldn’t have used a word from the title of the German national anthem. Too soon? By 2009, evidently not…so that takes care of my knee-jerk reaction to “Uber”.

But what about Lyft? It has the advantage of being a homonym for a common English word, related directly to the service you’re providing…so what can go wrong?

Well…there’s always the spoken word. Spoken aloud, the sentence “I’m going to try to get an Uber to the train station” is unambiguous. However…“I’m going to try to get a Lyft to the train station” when spoken is indistinguishable from “I’m going to try to get a lift to the train station”. Hence, Uber has the edge on entering the language, and thus gaining the commanding heights of the culture. (More on this topic here.)

Another reason my initial reaction to “Lyft” as better than “Uber” may be some personal history. I worked for a number of years at an outfit that had used the same substitution of “y” for “i” to create its company name. It was the computer service bureau, Tymshare.

Pretty straightforward, right? You want to rent time on a computer…you think Tymshare. Not so fast…there was a woman in my mother’s circle of acquaintances who knew that I was involved with computers, and worked for Tymshare. I found out that she had gone for years assuming that I was an internal IT guy at a company that rented out vacation condos!

And finally, that Jungian, you-just-can’t-make-this-stuff-up coincidence…I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but there was a fellow Tymshare employee, a computer engineer with a reputation for brilliance…some folks rated him as (against stiff competition) the smartest guy at this Silicon Valley tech firm. His name? LaRoyTymes.

Until next tyme…

–Greg Marus

P.S. I wonder if James Burke ever had anyone come up to him and say “Great to meet you! I’m the biggest fan of ‘Love Connection’!” We may never know…

DISCLAIMER: This posting is by Greg Marus, an independent freelance writer and does not necessarily reflect the official position of Brighter Naming with regards to name styles or popularity. For example, Uber and Lyft have gone on to trigger a whole new direction and awareness in names styles in addition to transport business opportunities. Unique names always win in the long term. Descriptive generics, not so often.

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