You hardly need another precis of the whole saga. So let’s get down to it: No, NERC shouldn’t actually name their vessel Boaty McBoatface. Why? Cos like a novelty pop song, it won’t bear repeating. (Remember thinking how great The Darkness were? Ever re-listen to the Permission to Land?) A win-win for NERC would be for them to pull a stern authority face, give it a normal name, but embrace the fact that, just like at school, you can’t control what nickname you’ve been given. Let it forever be ‘the boat that was nearly called Boaty McBoatface. (Oh, also: merchandising.)
There, now that’s done, let’s talk about the real lesson to be learned from the whole thing. No, it’s not about public democracy. It’s this: NAMING STUFF IS HARD. Or, to elaborate a bit further, naming stuff is hard in three ways:
1. Naming needs a tight process
When the brief is left wide open, we just can’t help trolling. From memory, the first was Mr Splashy Pants, the whale that Greenpeace asked the public to name, back in 2007. Mr Splashy Pants was actually the perfect balance of daftness, publicity and a name that actually nailed the brief. This Guardian piece neatly rounds up less successful open briefs, recalling how official intervention was required 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 category that was great: specific to the school, different in tone to the ‘heroic people’ namesthat 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, in a completely different league than most of the other ‘Boat Marley and the Whalers’ style lame gags. It instantly gives the boat a distinct and positive personality. (It reminded me of Nick Asbury’s stuff about folk branding.) It sounds funny. It’s pleasurable to say. And although it feels completely familiar, it’s actually completely original: both ‘boaty’ and ‘boatface’ are both nonsense inventions with a sing-song playground teasing feel to them. And the ‘Mc’ is just an extra arbitrary ridiculousness. Smoosh them all up together and you get something bonkers-glorious. It’s as though Spike Milligan and Dr Seuss had named it. Brilliant. It’s not surprising it was the runaway winner.
We’ve got a good ear for a great name. Just don’t trust uis to write our own brief…