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What product names and family names have in common

Miller, Farmer, Smith: it’s unthinkable for a person to do without a surname nowadays. That wasn’t always the case, however: there was a time when just a simple forename would suffice. Why did family names come about at all? And why does it make sense to give inanimate objects a name of their own?

Naming: Personal characteristics

Surnames first came about when towns and villages began to grow. From this point on, additional details were needed to tell different people apart and people began to be given additional nicknames or descriptions to avoid confusion around their identity. These were mostly attributes that described them – things like the Fat, the Baker, or Peter’s Son.

This is the origin of every family name. However, the origins of many names can no longer be determined at first glance, because the language has changed in the meantime. In Iceland, the custom of giving patronymic or matronymic family names persists – so that children take their surnames from their parents’ given names with the addition of the suffix -son or -daughter. This makes it possible to tell the country’s inhabitants apart, even if they have the same given name. In the past, that was a popular method elsewhere as well.

Surname research into the meanings of names

Additional alternatives to tell people apart from one another was to name them after towns or to characterize them based on their appearance, such as Large or Small. Jobs were another popular way to tell people apart, and names like Smith, Baker, Miller, and Farmer (or their equivalents in other languages) remain common today, recalling the family’s roots. Indeed, there is now an entire branch of research into the origins of family names and what names originally meant. Until the end of the 17th century, it was unusual for all members of the same family to have the same surname: only from the 18th century did this practice become universal.

Product names need to be recognizable

Even today, it’s normal to give things names. Some people name their car Claude or their fridge Fred. By naming things, people create an emotional connection to them. The world of marketing also uses this technique to make customers notice things and awaken positive connotations. Customers associate specific brands with particular characteristics. A name, whether it designates a company or a product, stands for qualities and values that the customer identifies with. A name means that customers can recognize products or brands when they see them again, creating a sense of belonging and security. When there is a wide variety of products to choose from, each individual product needs its own name so that customers can tell the different products apart. In the same way that people were named in the past, characteristics are used to name and describe products, signaling to customers what they can expect. As such, the customer gets a stronger impression of the product, while for the business, the result is greater brand recognition, which can be converted into higher revenue and, ultimately, increased profit.

Fortunately, companies can give their products any name they like - unlike family names, which you are usually stuck with for life.