How “Agilent” Got Its Name

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Google is reorganizing its business under a new holding company named “Alphabet.”  In the middle of AP’s article was this small side statement:

“When HP named its research division Agilent in 1999, some critics deemed it too lackluster.”

I can’t just let that go by.  A few critics may have had initial reservations about our name, but others were very positive.  Personally, I think our name is ideal.  Regardless, I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share some background on how a company chooses its name.

You may have heard that professional naming companies come up with thousands of names before settling on a winner.  Really?  One concern is that a global company’s name should not translate to anything inappropriate in any foreign language.  This was a challenge for Agilent, considering that we operate in more than 100 countries around the world.

Two historical examples come to mind.  In 1962, automaker Chevrolet named its new car the “Nova.”  While the word may connote the excitement of an exploding star in English, the term “no va” means “it doesn’t go” In Spanish.  Similarly, the “Citroën” automobile (now part of Peugeot) may sound harmless in French, but it means “lemon” in English – slang for a problem car.

You also cannot choose a name that has ever been used by any other company, anywhere.  In fact, if you use an actual word at all, chances are that someone else has already obtained a trademark or rights to the Internet domain.  It can be prohibitively expensive to secure the worldwide rights to your own name.

As a result, new companies increasingly name themselves after made-up words that don’t mean anything in any language.  Novartis.  Skype.  Zillow.  Zynga.  Etc.

“Agilent,” introduced on July 28, 1999, connotes “agility.”  It is a reminder to our customers, our shareholders and ourselves to remain agile in our work and in our thinking.  Our symbol, the “Spark of Insight,” connotes breakthrough innovation, which is a hallmark of our values.  And our company color is the same blue that was used by our founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

So not only does “Agilent” convey who we are, it also connects our heritage to our aspirations.  Now you know!

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