Today's article on naming in the New Yorker, titled "The Surprising Psychology of How Names Shape Our Thoughts," isn't that surprising at all. Words, whether they're wildly unfamiliar or literally "household names," trigger images and associations that help us make sense of what they're attached to.
I have a feeling this article will yield a lot of questions about sound symbolism in the weeks to come. Namers are often asked about sound symbolism: What are the characteristics of a name will help me sound fast? Premium? Optimistic? Psychologist Wolfgang Köhler's 1929 study found that respondents felt the name maluma sounded round and takete sounded sharp—simple ideas that are foundational to the study of sound symbolism. 70+ years later, rock-star neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran characterized this non-arbitrary linkage as the bouba/kiki effect.
Sound symbolism can be tricky. Not all associations are as binary as what's was shown in the bouba/kiki study, especially when you factor in cultural associations. It's a fascinating topic—but a solid naming brief shouldn't rely on symbolism alone to create relevant meaning.
The best piece of advice from the article applies not just to naming, but to all forms of verbal communication: "People generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand." (Links to a great, though highly academic, paper on how we best process information.) It can be so tempting to show your work, whether in a name or in a message, but there's so much more power in having confidence in a single, powerful idea, expressed simply and elegantly. That's how you create something memorable. That's how you connect.