Naming lessons from the streets of London

Many moons ago I embarked on an exciting career as a place name scholar. I had my brown suede jacket, my thick-rimmed spectacles, my library card, and a curiously niche specialism: the names of the city of London.

During my research I came across such gems as Shitebourne Lane, which was later sanitised to Sherbourne Lane. And (brace yourself) Gropecunte Street, which I think has been mentioned on QI, and which means exactly what you think it means.

Place names are wonderfully organic. The oldest ones weren’t thought up by a committee in a featureless room with not enough windows. They were just the way people referred to a place. So they give us a glimpse into the most natural kind of name.

There are too many place names to generalise, but it’s fair to say a good chunk of them describe things that are concrete. In London, that means buildings (Spitalfields is named for St Mary Spital, a twelfth century hospital). Or the stuff that gets sold locally (Poultry). Or a natural feature (Appletree Yard).

You don’t see Synergy Square. Or Dynamic Avenue. Those are abstract concepts people can’t quite grasp, and as a result, tend not to remember.

But it’s a different picture entirely if you look at product names and brand names in the business world. Plenty of them paint no pictures at all.

At The Writer, we help companies come up with names for all sorts of things. And if there’s one lesson they can all learn from place names, it’s to tap into our basic need for something real we can picture in our heads. A concrete name, not something abstract. As place names show, it’s just human nature.

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