When my son-in-law Eric was starting up an investment firm focused on marketing and trading electricity and natural gas, he asked for assistance in finding just the right name for the corporation. Lots of entrepreneurs like the idea of company or product names based on classical Latin or Greek, as they just sound, well, “classy,” are more or less universally intelligible, and evoke the notion of something with a longstanding tradition, solidly established, and thus reliable. Eric and I settled on Dynamis from the ancient Greek word dunamis, “power,” as in DYNAMo and DYNAMite. The term, which suggests both the commodity itself and an enterprise that is DYNAMic and on the move, turned out to be a powerful choice, and the business is flourishing today.
Similar corporate names abound. Magnavox, from Latin words meaning “great voice” (as in MAGNify and VOCal), was the perfect choice for a company specializing in loud speakers, radio, tv, and record players. Sony was chosen to connect both to Latin sonus/sound (like SONic and SONar) and to the slang term “sonny,” for the young men who started the firm. The tech company Acer took its name from Latin acer/sharp, and Verizon combines veritas/truth and the Greek word horizon. Docebo is a learning management system venture whose name means “I will teach,” from the Latin verb docere/instruct, which also gives us inDOCtrinate and DOCile (“teachable”).
We have plenty of “classical” household items, like Ajax cleanser, presumably as powerful as the Homeric warrior it’s named for; Lux soap, which will make you clean and bright as “light”; and Nivea skin cream, from the Latin for “snowy-white.” My bonaVITA coffee-maker should make me feel that “life” (as in VITAlity and VITAmin) is “good” (like a BONus from my boss). If you suffer from constipation, chocolaty Ex-Lax will first “loosen” things up (from laxare, as in reLAX), then empty things “out” (from ex as in EXit). Nike athletic gear, named for the Greek goddess of Victory, will help you win; and ASICS, acronym for animus sanus in corpore sano (adapted from the Roman satirist Juvenal), will assure you a “sound mind in a sound body.”
And let’s not forget food and drink. Nabisco’s belVita Breakfast Biscuits may guarantee you a “beautiful (bella) life,” Luna energy bars might inspire you to dance in the light of the “moon” (like a LUNAtic?), and Dido candy must be fit for royalty (like Dido, queen of Vergil’s Carthage). Since Akademia Brewery in Athens, Georgia, was named for Plato’s Athenian Academy, their beers ought to make us smarter; their motto is an old Roman proverb, aut bibas aut abeas, “either drink or go away.” Portugal's Quinta de Cabriz wines are labeled in perpetuum, doubtless for their long shelf life, and the vintners who produce Peccavi (Latin for “I have sinned,” as in PECCAdillo, a little mistake) promise us “No Regrets” on their label. Atlanta’s Bacchanalia restaurant apparently offers an orgy of eating and drinking, and the menu at Fresno’s Veni, Vidi, Vici (as in conVENe, VIDeo, VICtory) naturally includes Caesar salad.
Then there’re planes, trains, and automobiles. The Greeks’ Olympic Air evokes Olympus, airy mountain home of the gods, and Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics. Delta Airlines, named for the Mississippi region it originally served, draws its name ultimately from the Greek letter “delta,” whose shape the ancients thought resembled the region where the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean. The name of the Madrid-based carrier Iberia derives from what Greeks and Romans called the peninsula that now includes Portugal and Spain. For its high-speed train serving the northeast corridor, Amtrak coined the Latin-sounding Acela to suggest “exCELlence” and “ACCELeration,” both derived from Latin nouns.
There’re far too many classically inspired automobile names to include them all here. But I love Toyota’s regal Corona, Latin for “crown” (as in CORONAtion); Ford’s Taurus, the “bull” (like Spanish el toro); Mercury, from Mercurius, swift messenger of the gods; Volvo, “I roll” (the manufacturer’s first products were ball-bearings); and Chevy’s Equinox, presumably EQUally fun to drive both day and night (Latin nox/noctis gives us NOCTurnal). When August Horch, whose German name meant “hark,” left one auto factory, which bore his name, to found another, his young son proposed that the new company use the Latin equivalent of his name, audi (as in AUDIence and AUDItory), “listen!”
Catchy classical names don’t always work out so well. Chevy’s Nova may have been meant to suggest a shiny new car (from Latin nova/new, as in NOVelty and NOVice), but in Spanish no va means “it doesn’t go,” making for a bad joke and, in urban legend at least, a bit of a marketing challenge in Latin American countries. Mazda introduced a new sedan in the 1980s dubbed the Millenia. If spelled with two “n”s, like Latin millennium/plural millennia, the name might make buyers envision an auto that, like Eveready’s Energizer Bunny, could keep going and going “for thousands of years,” from mille/1,000 (source of MILLion and MILe) + annus/year, as in ANNual and centENNial. But with that single “n,” seemingly therefore from mille + anus (which means what it looks like in English), one can only imagine a creature more horrific than the three-headed hellhound Cerberus or the 100-handed Hecatoncheires of Greek myth — the monster with a thousand butts.
There’re websites where you can actually purchase Latin business names, but I’d say caveat (as in CAUtion) emptor, “let the buyer beware.” I’ve spotted lots of bad Latin on these sites and even GOOGLE Translate can lead you down the wrong path. If you’re looking for a Latin moniker for your product, company, pet (our French bulldog answers to “Ipsa,” Latin for “Herself”), or child (Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan named their first daughter “Maxima,” meaning “the Greatest”), better check with your neighborhood Latin teacher first.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.