Meeple Musings #2: The Name of the Meeple
In this series, Craig and Lea share their experiences and challenges of setting up and running an ethical local friendly boardgame store.
What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot as it happens. When Lea and I first sat down to discuss the idea of forming Meeple & More, it wasn’t called Meeple & More. It wasn’t called anything. And then we sat down in the Teaspoon Tea Company in Grantham (lovely tea range by the way) and suddenly it was called a lot of different things. In the Boardgame Café line: Meeple & Mocha, Cardboard & Coffee, The Yellow Meeple Café; in the strictly game shop line: Cardboard Kingdom, The Meeple Man, Meeples & More. I’m sure there were many others we’ve since forgotten. But among the first lessons we learned when establishing the business was the challenge of coming up with a compelling name.
I admit to being naïve. I am a lot of the time! But we always thought, much like the writer of a novel might think, that a name could come later, that it wasn’t all that important compared to the real work at hand. You know, the heart of the thing - getting the distribution deals in place, the supplier networks, a working store front for interacting with customers, online presence, cash flow software and compliance related processes – all the stuff that really happens behind the curtain of a limited company. We thought a name could be dreamt up, plucked from the aether, taken from the generous hand of the Muse when the right moment presented itself. In reality, what we discovered was that, actually, names are really important. And they’re also kind of hard.
First of all, there’s the tricky business of finding a catchy name that hasn’t already been taken. Just because a company isn’t trading with the name you’ve set your heart on, doesn’t mean to say that a company hasn’t already been registered somewhere with that very same name. Goodbye Cardboard Kingdom, Cardboard & Coffee, Meeples & Mocha. Most of the time these companies are dormant name-claiming entities that lurk in the damp, dark drawers of Companies House or their drier digital equivalent (ok, admittedly I’ve no idea what the storage conditions are like, lighting or moisture-wise at Companies House). Sometimes they are talismans of future good intentions – other people intending to create something down the line. Most of the time, they are dormant ideas that languish unused, unloved in the ‘perhaps I’ll do it tomorrow’ department of people’s lives. Much worse, sometimes they are the lures of cynical cash-grabbing goblins hoping to get people to buy the names from them.
And even when you do think of a name, you’ve then got to consider human psychology. How long is that name? Do you really think people are going to type into a search engine ‘Craig and Lea’s Boardgaming Emporium’? That’s 31 letters, 4 spaces and an apostrophe! Urgh. Effort. And apostrophes terrify most people. You see errant ones offered up all over the place as some kind of appeasement to the Punctuation Gods. You only have to do a quick search on the tinterweb before you’re wading in articles recommending all sorts of stuff with regards to the ideal length of a company name. What makes it worse is that it’s sometimes hard to spot the articles with any real business acumen or academic basis for their assertions. For the most part, the wisdom of the crowd says that company names should not be over 15 characters in length. Why? Well it’s partly to do with search engine optimisation and algorithms, but I also think it’s because most people don’t want to have to tap lots of buttons. It’s effort.
Eventually Lea and I decided that we liked Meeples & More, but then we discovered a Schrödinger’s cat of a conundrum in the form of a Board Game Café in Bangkok that also went/goes by that name. I say that because Facebook lists the company as now being closed permanently. All their other media seems to be likewise dormant. (We tried to contact them with no answer.) So short of going to Bangkok, there’s no way of actually knowing if they do continue to trade or whether they have moved onto pastures (or Agricola boards) new. They are, at least in our minds, simultaneously there and not there. This caused Lea and I some consternation for a time, because we didn’t want to use a name that was already associated with a business elsewhere – even if there was no legal issue in Europe (as the Bangkok company wasn’t registered in any form for trade over here). Nevertheless, we decided to proceed with caution, knowing that we’d have an uphill battle ahead of us by using a name that was already associated with a dormant company on the other side of the planet.
Meeples & More became Meeple & More.
Now, as someone with an English degree and a pedant’s love of grammar (combined with a hypocrite’s disregard of its application) I became more than a little obsessed with the etymology of the word ‘meeple’. I drove Lea mad with it for a while. Is ‘meeple’ or ‘meeples’ the correct nomenclature? If cardboard legend is to be believed, then the term ‘meeple’ was born in a game of Carcassonne when Alison Hansel, a gamer, kept referring to her player pieces as “my people”, running the words together so they sounded like ‘meeple’. (Like a reckless neologism involved in a high speed collision with a sleepy malapropism not paying attention to oncoming traffic.) Of course, threads on Board Game Geek mention other potential origins (https://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/1012399) but with so many claims, counterclaims, rumours and mumblings, it’s likely that the word will remain an etymological mystery.
What baffled us then, and continues to do so now, is the singular and plural forms of the word.
CRAIG: Most people believe that ‘meeple’ is derived from people.
IMAGINARY LINGUISTIC EXPERT: Yes.
CRAIG: And people is a plural noun.
IMAGINARY LINGUISTIC EXPERT: Yes.
CRAIG: So what’s the singular form? You know, like person to people. What is it to meeple?
BORED IMAGINARY LINGUISTIC EXPERT: Meeple.
CRAIG: What? It can’t be. People is plural, so meeple must be plural. Otherwise what’s the plural?
BORED IMAGINERY LINGUISTIC EXPERT CHECKING A PHONE: Meeple. Meeples. Mepulus? Mepli?
In common usage, it seems that meeple/meeples has gained traction to the point that we think it will be the norm going forward. Certainly many rule books seem to have taken that approach. But the grammar fusspot in me couldn’t bring itself to abandon the plural etymological roots of the word, and so Meeple & More stuck. Of course, Lea was reasonably happy with that because a) it was more distinct from the existing Bangkok games café and b) I stopped talking about meeples.
Meeple & More was born.
(I’ll spare you the account of our ‘and’ versus ‘&’ discussions – though as an aside, neither of us realised that the ampersand is forbidden from use in web domain names until we tried to register our company website with one!)
Meeple & More Ltd. Short and sweet. Less than 15 characters. Alliterative too! (And what English degree owning person can resist a good bit of alliteration?) It felt good to have a name, not least because we could finally begin the legal compliance processes: registering the company, applying for a bank account, applying for VAT registration, registering web domain names and so on. It was an important milestone. You might call it a meeplestone. I won’t. (Even though I just did).
The final hurdle to be vaulted was getting our fledgling mini-meeple to rise up the search engine rankings to the status of a Grande-Meeple (just for you Viticulture fans out there). But for the first few nervous weeks, typing our name into Google just bounced us between the closed Bangkok café and a slew of other barely related board gaming websites. We were more like an invisi-meeple, the Scarlet Meeplenell, the… ok I’ll stop.
Lea, who has more patience than me with such matters, was confident that given enough time our company would begin to appear on searches. But given that I have little patience, I decided to read up on the basics of Search Engine Optimisation anyway, just to see if there was anything I could do to push our little meeple into the limelight. I needed to figure it all out.
All good adventure stories feature spiders at some point. The Lord of the Rings has Shelob. We had some too, though we soon learned that the spiders in our story were the digital algorithmic variety – digital bots scurrying into the nooks and crevices of our website to root out keywords that would be helpful in user searches. Search engines rely on them to see what a website contains, but these spiders take time to crawl and collate not only your domain name, but what appears on each page of your website’s sitemap. And as ours was practically empty, we knew we had a challenge ahead. We learned then and there that we’d have to build a lot of content and quickly. It seemed that the more we learned, the more we discovered there was still to learn. Such is life, I guess when it comes to acquiring new skills and knowledge. We learn the breadth of our ignorance.
Thinking back to these early days of choosing a company name and trying to get our website to appear on a websearch, I’m reminded of a section of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, a historical murder mystery that takes place in a fourteenth-century Italian monastery.
Yes, bear with me.
Adso, the narrator, relates a conversation with a monk about the relationship between one book to another in the library: “To know what one book says you must read others?” … “Often books speak of other books”. Eco was writing about the connections between literature, between ideas, allusions that point to other tales. But it strikes me that the same can be said of the relationship between company names and search engines. What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot actually. Often search engine websites speak of other websites.
The name of the rose matters. Ours is called Meeple & More.