Latest Posts

Categories

Tags

Twitter Feed

How Alexa the Product Conquered Alexa the Name

May 31, 2019 laurawattenberg 5 Comments

How Alexa the Product Conquered Alexa the Name

May 31, 2019 LauraWattenberg 5 Comments
Amazon Alexa
Image: Mathias Wegert/Adobe

Amazon put us on a collision course. Not that we couldn’t see it coming—Apple’s Siri had sent early-warning signals years before. With Amazon’s “virtual assistant” Alexa, though, there was no escape. Human names and virtual names met head on, and the human names blinked. Alexa was America’s fastest-falling baby name of 2018.

Alexa is hardly the first baby name to do double duty as a product name. Fashion and marketing both march to the beat of the times, so crossovers are inevitable. Try searching for any popular girl’s name at a shoe seller like Zappos.com and you’ll find a wide array of shoe choices with that model name. Product names are always scattered through the baby name stats, too, from luxury labels to the likes of Velveeta and Charmin. Sometimes the brand names and baby names emerge naturally in tandem. Automakers and parents were drawn to names like Sierra and Dakota around the same time.

What you won’t often find is a brand name killing off a baby name. Alexa is different because it occupies a brand-new intermediate space: products you converse with. With 100 million Alexa devices already sold, the name has been assigned not merely to a product, but to a role in social interaction. It’s the name that gets ordered around.

At the most basic level, that’s a recipe for confusion. Imagine being a woman named Alexa, visiting a household where people are constantly saying things like “Hey Alexa, what time is it?” It’s also fodder for endless jokes at any Alexa’s expense. More subtly, we don’t know the psychological effect of the established digital lackey role on both a person named Alexa and those who meet her. It’s not surprising that parents backed away from the name.

Siri didn’t suffer the same fate because it was little-known as a name outside of Scandinavia. That was part of the name’s appeal as a brand, at a time when a virtual assistant was a novel concept. When I chose Siri as my 2011 Name of the Year, I wrote:

“To English speakers, it comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn’t overly familiar or tied to any time period. It’s approachable but not in your face. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and that you, as its owner, are stylishly confident.”

Alexa is more rooted in current American style. So much so, in fact, that the flight from the name is rubbing off on other similar names like Alexis. (Their cyclical downturn has apparently been accelerated.) Compared to Siri, Alexa is also more random as a brand choice. Before you give too much thought to the reasons behind Amazon’s choice of Alexa, you should know that the corporation already owned the name.

Alexa Internet was a web traffic tracking company founded in the mid-’90s. It was granted a trademark for the name Alexa in the astonishingly broad realm of “providing a wide range of information via global computer network.” Amazon acquired the company in 1999. When the time came to name their virtual assistant, they had in hand a simple, stylish, bold girl’s name for which trademark competition had been minimized for decades. Why look further?

Perhaps that element of randomness can be a comfort to human Alexas who feel like their name is under attack. No, there’s nothing inherently servile about the name. On the contrary, its sound and style project confidence. But the ubiquitous virtual Alexas aren’t leaving their human counterparts much name space.

Alexa the baby name makes history as the first to fall to a virtual competitor. It’s unlikely to be the last.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

All posts

5 Comments

  • Evie
    Evie May 31, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    This is fascinating! I did not know that Alexa came from a pre-existing company. I did assume that both Apple and Amazon went with human names because they wanted to simulate speaking to an actual human assistant (and with female names because “assistant” is unfortunately gendered female, because sexism… what if I want an English butler? Couldn’t one of them have been Jeeves or something?)

    But Alexa always made sense to me as a name that has sort of technical overtones to it, possibly just due to the similarity of the Latin words meaning “law” and “word.” And it’s sleek and modern and has that fashionable x especially beloved of tech products.

  • TheOtherHungarian
    TheOtherHungarian June 4, 2019 at 3:02 pm

    Pardon me if my inner Luddite is showing, but isn’t it possible to change the name of these virtual assistants? It seems like a basic thing…

    Changing the voice from female to male should also be possible: screen readers for the blind and GPS systems both give users the option of choosing the desired voice. (And I’m not talking about the novelty voices for the GPS, which tend to not have the ability to pronounce street names: I’m talking about the built-in voices that operate, at least in part, on phonetic rules rather than recordings.)

    • HungarianNameGeek
      HungarianNameGeek June 6, 2019 at 12:55 am

      Mr. Google tells me that your choices for the Amazon device’s wake word are Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and Computer. That’s it. As for the voice, you can change the language to German or Japanese or the English accent to British, Canadian, Australian, or Indian, but you cannot make it male.

      I have no idea why they’ve crippled the device like this. The input end (the wake word) ought to be dead easy to program to be whatever the user wants it to be, as it’s just a single word. The output end (the voice) has been well-explored by GPS devices, so it ought to be easy, too.

      I don’t speak with machines, so we’re not getting such a device any time in the foreseeable future, but if forced to employ a digital assistant, I’d want to address it as Jeeves, and have it reply in a cultured male British voice.

      • Evie
        Evie June 6, 2019 at 4:46 pm

        … and could it be programmed to answer “Yes, m’lady?” ?? That might be enough to get me on board!
        (Not really… we also have a totally “dumb” house, because we are creeped out by the idea of tech companies listening and gathering data on everything we say. But it’s fun to imagine!)

  • HeyAlexa June 12, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    As an Alexa (who’s had the name almost 20 years longer than the product has been around), knowing it came from a pre-existing company does answer some questions, but doesn’t make me like it (or the snide comments I get) any more! I did always wonder why they chose it, since it was such a popular name. My guess had long been that some Amazon exec named it after his daughter without thinking too hard about the consequences.

    I met a man yesterday who has a 5 year old Alexa, which really must put her at the cusp of the name’s fall—the first gen Amazon product came out in 2014. I feel worse for young kids growing up with the name, especially if their friends’ parents have one. I only know one person who has an Alexa and calls it that and it was very eerie going over to her house and hearing her command me/it to play a certain playlist.

  • Leave a Reply

    Recent Posts

    Recent Forum Topics

    Recent Comments

    Archives

    Subscribe & Follow

    ×