Friday, November 09, 2012


Name Changes

The Board of Directors of the venerable American Philological Association (founded in 1869) are thinking about changing the organization's name. I'm not a member, and I have no say in the matter, but of course as an antediluvian and curmudgeon, a laudator temporis acti, I oppose such a needless change.

Here are some thoughts on a related topic, corporate name changes, which I wrote nine years ago (October 2003) on a now defunct web site:
It amazes me when companies throw away decades of hard-won brand recognition on a new corporate name. Bell Atlantic was named after the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, but a few years ago the company inexplicably changed its name to Verizon. Bell Atlantic was obviously a phone company based in the eastern United States, but who could guess, from its name, what Verizon sells? The name is apparently an amalgam of "veritas" (the Latin word for truth) and "horizon" — what truth and horizon have to do with each other or the phone business escapes my feeble comprehension. Bell Labs likewise changed its name to Lucent, an English word which means "gleaming".

Other corporations have also shed venerable family names. Woolworth Corporation changed its name first to Venator Group, then to Foot Locker. "Venator" means hunter in Latin, but the connection between Venator Group and hunting is a mystery. Dayton's is now Marshall Field's.

New Zealand outdoor clothing chain Fairydown has just changed its name to Zone, because some men were uncomfortable wearing shirts with the Fairydown label. Sir Edmund Hilary, who wore Fairydown clothing when he climbed Mount Everest, isn't among them. He said, "Reading that connotation into the name is just absolutely stupid. It's a good brand. I have a Fairydown jacket and I am very proud to wear it."

There are obvious fads in these new names. Lucent made the ending -ent popular. Two Lutheran aid societies (Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood) recently combined as Thrivent Financial, and Universal Foods is now Sensient Technologies. At least Lucent is a real word. Thrivent and Sensient are ugly-sounding and misshapen coinages. In English we say thriving and sentient, but only a Mrs. Malaprop could dream up thrivent and sensient. Some other corporate names which are supposed to sound new-fangled and "with it" (but actually sound bizarre) are Navistar (formerly International Harvester) and Novartis (born of the marriage of Ciba Geigy and Sandoz).

Believe it or not, but there are actually companies which get paid big bucks for thinking up these crazy monikers. So-called "identity firms" include Landor, Idiom, A Hundred Monkeys, Interbrand, NameLab, NameBase, Name/It, NameTrade, Namestormers, TrueNames, and ABC Namebank.

One favorite ploy is deliberately to misspell an English word and make that your corporate name. Cellular One was spelled correctly, but its new name Cingular Wireless is not. Presumably Cingular is supposed to mean "singular" (unique), although it reminds me of Latin "cingula" (girdle). Another orthographically challenged corporate name is Xcel Energy (formerly Northern States Power).

Like a criminal changing his name after release from prison, some corporations rush to change their names after they get into trouble. ValuJet changed its name to AirTran after a 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades which killed 110 people. After its involvement in the Enron debacle became known, Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture. Enron itself came about as the merger of InterNorth of Omaha and Houston Natural Gas in 1986. The first choice for the corporate name was Enteron, until someone looked in the dictionary and realized that "enteron" means "alimentary canal, digestive tract." Maybe they should have stuck with Enteron, since events proved that Ken Lay and his cronies were totally full of crap, like a bloated large intestine.

Philip Morris sold poison for decades — two of its advertising icons, Marlboro Men Wayne McLaren and David McLean, died of lung cancer caused by smoking. Now Philip Morris wants to refurbish its tarnished corporate image by calling itself Altria Group. Chairman and Chief Executive officer Geoffrey C. Bible explains the name change thus on the corporate web site:
The significance of the name "Altria" is derived from the Latin word "altus," which reflects the corporation’s desire for its family of companies to always "reach higher" in striving to achieve greater financial strength and growth through operational excellence, consumer brand expertise and a growing understanding of corporate responsibility.
Corporate responsibility from a manufacturer of cancer sticks. Yeah, sure.

There are some products which could use a name change. Flonase reminds me of "flow" plus the Latin word for nose (nasum), i.e. a runny nose. I picture a toddler with the glazed donut look between nose and upper lip. And NasalCrom evokes "nasal crumbs," an unappealing image.

The creeping curse of commercialization infects even academia these days, where students are considered clients, and so it's no surprise to find that institutions of higher learning are imitating corporations by changing their names. Beaver College, founded in 1853, changed its name to Arcadia University in 2001. President Bette E. Landman explained that the old name "too often elicits ridicule in the form of derogatory remarks pertaining to the rodent, the TV show 'Leave It to Beaver' and the vulgar reference to the female anatomy."

One of my favorite corporate name change fiascos occurred last year in neighboring Wisconsin, where Wisconsin Energy renamed its subsidiary Wisconsin Electric-Wisconsin Gas to WE Energies. Wags instantly christened the company "Wiener-gies," to the chagrin of the marketing bozos responsible. For a time there was a parody web site with logos for Wiener-gies, such as a bratwurst in a bun, but it doesn't seem to have survived in cyberspace.

By the way, I've decided to re-brand myself. Henceforth you can call me E-Mike, rather than just plain Mike.

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