Coining terms and picking book titles

I learned early in my career as an analyst that if you can name an idea or a trend, you can own it.

My employer Forrester made huge strides after one of its analysts, John McCarthy, coined the term “client-server computing.” And it’s also where John Kindervag invented the Zero Trust security model.

This can work well if you are actually inventing and fleshing out an idea nobody has described before. But for every coinage that succeeds there are a dozen attempts that didn’t catch on.

For example:

  • John Robb at Forrester attempted to rebrand search engines as “navigation hubs.” Guess what we’re calling them now? Search engines.
  • Bill Bluestein christened computing devices other than computers “PC Mutants.” We just call them devices or smart devices now.
  • I christened the science of classifying people by their approach to technology “technographics,” by analogy with demographics and psychographics. Forrester trademarked it and still uses it for their consumer survey product.
  • When I first saw TiVo, I knew it would be the first of a category of devices to easily record television. I wrote a report about “personal video recorders” (PVRs). That term actually caught on for a while, until the rest of the industry decided to call them digital video recorders (DVRs).
  • In 2010 I figured out that the proliferation of devices, paywalls, and apps would take the previously unified Web and shatter it into incompatible pieces. I called it the Splinternet. Other people had used the term to reflect other incompatible pieces of the Web, like routers in totalitarian countries that blocked many sites. In any case, it made a minor ripple, but nobody talks about it anymore.

Should you coin a term for your book title?

If your book is about trend and you can coin a term for the trend, you can use it as your book title. And it might be a great moment for you and your book if it catches on.

That’s what Chris Anderson did with The Long Tail, a term for the proliferation of options internet sites can offer and resulting profit potential. Both the book and the idea took off.

Sheryl Sandberg ignited a movement for women in the workplace with Lean In.

Interestingly, you can coin a term in a book and have it catch fire, even if it’s not the title of your book. Clayton Christensen’s book on disruption was called The Innovator’s Dilemma. If he’d been able to see the future it was defining, he might have just titled it “Disruption.”

Conversely, my book with Charlene Li, Groundswell, attempted to redefine what others were calling social media as “the groundswell.” The ideas in the book were very influential. But people persisted in calling the trend “social media,” even though it really isn’t media.

Here’s what I take away from these examples:

If you have a great idea and a good title, you can succeed. You don’t need to coin a term.

If you have a great idea and coin a clever term, you can succeed, even if the term doesn’t catch on.

If you have a weak idea — or are just rehashing other people’s ideas — don’t bother trying to define a term to make yourself stand out. You’ll just look like a copycat.

The desire to come up with cool names for things is irresistible. But it is better to be an original thinker than invent names for things.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.