April 11, 2006

Unfolding Infogami

A few months ago Mike Pope of Evolving English II brought to our attention an employment website called Jobdango, which grafted the last two syllables of fandango onto job to create its domain name. I described this as a case of cran-morphing, where a segment of a word is reanalyzed as if it were a combinable morpheme preserving some semantic association with the longer word from which the segment is taken (like the cran- in cranberry recombining in cran-grape and cran-raspberry). Now Pope divulges a new cran-morphish domain name from the fevered minds of Web developers: Infogami, a Wiki-like application launched by Aaron Swartz that lets users build their own websites.

Noting that Microsoft used "Origami" as a working name for the project that became "Ultra-Mobile PC," Pope writes:

MS's use is just recasting an ordinary noun as a name. Swartz actually takes the step of decomposing the term. So what's the common semantic, I wonder? Small? Folding? Make cool things out of simple materials? I can't quite pull the instances together.

Swartz illuminates the selection of the name in a narrative about his early brainstorming with Paul Graham, Trevor Blackwell, and a woman he calls "4 of 4":

'When would you have the first prototype done?' 'Well, we'd hope to work on it over the next term so we'd have it ready over the summer.' 'Oh, wonderful, wonderful.' he says. 'What about this name? Infogami? You're going to always have to spell it out.' Paul says. 'Isn't it just origami with info at the beginning?' 4 of 4 asks. 'Well, it's confusing,' Paul says. 'In-FAH-gomee,' Trevor chimes in. 'All the names with blog in it are probably taken,' 4 of 4 says. 'No, you don't want blog in it,' Paul says. 'You want something bigger, something that can face the world. You're not wedded to the name, are you?' 'No, we just picked it so we could stop discussing the name and move on,' I said. 'Oh, good,' Paul says, and moves on.

As is no doubt the case with many startups, a replacement was never found for the original stopgap name. But Graham must have eventually warmed up to the sound of "Infogami," as he wrote about it approvingly in a post about what makes a good startup name:

Infogami is a pretty decent name too. Aaron already had that when we first met him. It can't conveniently be used as a verb, but it looks and sounds good, and has the advantage that it can naturally expand to cover whatever this software evolves into.

Graham observes that nowadays "cool" startups tend to inhabit "decidedly marginal name space" by using peculiar, less-than-obvious domain names. He compares it to "when fashionable people started living in lofts in industrial neighborhoods," where "the features that initially repelled people, like rough concrete walls, have now become a badge of coolness." One example Graham gives of a weird-therefore-cool domain name is Flickr, though as we've seen the substitution of "-er" with "-r" is rapidly losing its cachet of hipness as a flock of Web developers follow Flickr's lead (much as the industrial lofts in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood are nowhere near as hip as they were a decade ago).

So the use of unusual cran-morphs like -dango for "Jobdango" or -gami for "Infogami" is evidently another route into fashionably offbeat name space. The danger, though, is in deploying a cran-morph that is so unusual that it lacks semantic transparency. Though the -gami ending was striking enough for bloggers to recognize the metaphor of "Web Origami," Mike Pope wasn't the only one to be a bit baffled by what that metaphor was supposed to indicate. As a contributor to the Joel on Software discussion group wondered soon after the startup name leaked out, "Infogami — like origami, except information instead of paper?" And a commenter on Paul Graham's piece about startup names raised a potential cross-linguistic problem:

No biggie, but if you speak Japanese infogami sounds weird, as the "gami" in origami just means paper (kami). The "ori" part means fold. So infogami sounds like info-paper, not info-folding as I imagine was the intention.

That could conceivably be an issue if Infogami makes it big in Japan, but it's not something that would trouble Anglophones. One significant aspect of cran-morphing is that it completely reanalyzes a segment, regardless of what semantic content the segment may have had earlier in its history, whether in English or another originating language. Cheeseburgers and turkeyburgers don't have anything to do with the inhabitants of a burg, just as Monicagate and Plamegate don't have anything to do with gates.

Another possible source of confusion is pronunciation. The connection to origami implies that the name should be pronounced as [ˌɪnfoˈgɑmi] after the typical English pronunciation of [ˌɔrəˈgɑmi]. But Trevor Blackwell was first tempted to pronounce the name as [ɪnˈfɑgəmi], influenced by similarly stressed forms ending in -gamy like monogamy [məˈnɑgəmi]. On the other hand, perhaps that pronunciation would provide an extra semantic boost: you can choose to read it as either 'the folding of information' or 'the marriage of information'!

[Update #1: Sean Palmer emails to say that Steve Ivy was the first to come up with the name "Infogami," back in March 2002.

Also, I was remiss in giving examples demonstrating that -gami had risen to the level of a crantacular combining form. A quick Web search finds plenty of examples of X-gami meaning "(the art of) folding X," such as card-i-gami, diaper-gami, pornogami, penis-gami (yikes), moneygami, and so forth.]

[Update #2: Dan Brown sends along another example of X-gami: baby-gami. (Fortunately this entails wrapping, not folding, babies.)]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 11, 2006 02:22 PM