Naming something? Forget ‘McBoatface’s law’ at your peril

You hardly need another precis of the whole marvellous saga. So let’s get down to it: No, NERC shouldn’t name their vessel RSS Boaty McBoatface. Why? Because like a novelty pop song, it seems funny now but won’t bear repeating. (Remember thinking how great The Darkness were? Ever re-listen to Permission to Land?) A win-win for NERC would be for them to mumble something about the Queen, give the boat a serious name, but continue to talk about ‘the boat that was nearly called Boaty McBoatface’. (Oh, also: merchandising.)

Now that’s done, let’s talk about the real lesson we can learn here. No, it’s not about public democracy. It’s this: NAMING STUFF IS HARD. If you need to name something, here’s three things Boaty McBoatface reminds us of:

1. Naming needs a clear brief
When the brief is left wide open, we just can’t help trying to be funny. And that’s not just because we’re mischievous, bloody-minded trolls (OK, a bit.) It’s because in the absence of a brief, ‘being funny’ at least gives you a measure whether a name is ‘any good’. (People laughed! I must have done a good name!) Occasionally, making people laugh is actually a valid response — remember Mr Splashy Pants, the Greenpeace whale named by online poll? That was a rare instance of a funny name that allowed for a lot of fun in the process, got tons of publicity, and nailed the brief.

But for most other public ‘help us pick a name’ initiatives, some kind of upfront steer would have saved a ton of awkwardness and back-peddling. This Guardian piece rounds up a few, showing how official intervention was needed to stop a football stadium being known as ‘The Bell End’, a fizzy drink being called ‘Hitler Did Nothing Wrong’, and a Slovakian bridge being called ‘Chuck Norris’.

If you want to involve people (this counts for internal naming brainstorms as much as public polling), put some constraints in place: a shortlist to pick from, or themes you want to explore. Which brings me to…

2. Go for themes first, then names
The first year I was at senior school — Barr Beacon comprehensive on the outskirts of Birmingham — our four school ‘houses’ were named after famous athletes. (Connolly, Compton… and two I can’t remember.) For some reason the school decided it wanted to change them, and asked us pupils for ideas. All our suggestions were shit. Except one kid, who suggested Malvern, Wrekin, Breedon and Clent. Because like Barr Beacon, they were also hills with beacons on them. I remember being seriously impressed. It was the theme of ‘beacons’ that was great: specific to the school, different in tone to the ‘heroic people’ names that had gone before, and an internally consistent set.

Look at the top 10 winning boat names: half of them are jokes, two are traditional ‘name the boat after a famous science person’ names, and three are ‘in memory of someone.’ Those are all extremely typical categories for naming big public projects. (For what it’s worth, RSS Dr Katharine Giles got my vote: it’s the category that generated the most serious public support, and honours the memory of a polar scientist.)

3. Truly great names combine familiarity and freshness
Whether you love it or hate it, RSS Boaty McBoatface is a bloody great name. It’s in a completely different league to most of the other ‘Boat Marley and the Whalers’ type puns. It gives the boat a distinct and positive personality (which reminded me of Nick Asbury’s excellent thinking about folk branding.) It sounds funny and is pleasing to say. And that’s mostly because, although it feels completely familiar, it’s actually totally original: both ‘boaty’ and ‘boatface’ are both nonsense inventions with a sing-song playground feel to them. And the ‘Mc’ is so unnecessary it’s glorious. Smoosh all that together and you get something properly bonkers-lovely, a Spike Milliganish, Dr Seussish name.

Which is interesting. Because it means that while you can’t expect people to instinctively know what the brief is, or what the right themes are, collectively, we have a finely tuned ear for a great name.