The Names They Are A-Changin’

On my walk this morning, as I passed the salon where I get my hair cut, I noticed that someone had hung over the doorknob a plastic bag of magazines. [An aside: The bag was the type known as a “Thank you” or “T-shirt” bag. The first I understand: the generic bags are printed with just “Thank you!” instead of a merchant’s name. But why “T-shirt”? The shape of the bag much more nearly resembles the other kind of undershirt, the kind called an “athletic shirt” or “singlet.” I guess “undershirt bag” didn’t sound nice.]

The bag was from a certain giant discount retailer that advertises “Always low prices.” Seeing this reminded me that I had recently been taken aback by a surprise move on the part of this retailer. For years I have been correcting “Walmart,” “Wal-mart,” and even “Wall-mart” to “Wal-Mart.” The company’s logo actually used a five-pointed star between the parts, but for general use a hyphen sufficed. The first time recently that I ran across a reference to “Walmart,” I assumed it was an error, but the other night I saw a commercial from the company itself that clearly showed that its new moniker is “Walmart.” It will undoubtedly take time to roll out new signs and rebrand everything in sight. I see that the “Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.” Web site still shows the old logo (and the favicon of the site is a blue star). On the other hand, has the new logo, including the six-pointed yellow starburst (flower) as its favicon. Wikipedia has one foot in both camps (it should be noted that probably the corporate name will not change even though the branding does).

I don’t suppose that this change should surprise me. Snappy names, free of punctuation, are more Web-friendly and look clean and modern. But I can’t help reflecting on a bygone era when staid, formal names connoted strength and stability. In those days, the name of my father’s stockbroker was Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Bean. I thought this was a wonderful name. When it became Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, I didn’t feel it had quite the same cachet. Now, of course, it’s just Merrill Lynch.

There was a time when an ambitious young lawyer or accountant or stockbroker who became a partner in his firm would aspire to senior partner status and perhaps even eventual recognition in the firm’s name. He might have to wait for a few other senior partners to drop off the twig, but sooner or later, if he worked hard and didn’t blot his copybook (and especially if he married the boss’s daughter), he might see his name added to the top of the letterhead. Those were the days when the firm’s receptionist might wear herself out just answering the phone.

And the names used punctuation—commas after the names, the last two joined by an ampersand. Such niceties are now entirely passé. Firms generally first drop the commas, then the ampersand. Some companies then start to run the names together: Smith, Kline & French becomes Smith Kline & French, then SmithKline & French; now it’s GlaxoSmithKline. I have stock in JPMorganChase (or at least that’s what’s on the dividend checks; apparently the name is actually JPMorgan Chase & Co.). As a result of the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand, a Big Four accounting firm is named PricewaterhouseCoopers. A long-established publisher (also as a result of mergers) is now HarperCollins. (Presumably someone will have the sense not to try Merrilllynch.)

These are the kinds of names that make life difficult for editors and typesetters. Not only do they have to be carefully verified, but they pose hyphenation problems. Still they are preferable to contrived names (actually logos) that use unconventional punctuation. The star in Wal-Mart is one example. Another came up recently in a report I was typing. It seems that a certain appraisal firm wanted to be known as “Butler¨Burgher.” (In case that doesn’t come through for you, the central character is a small diamond.) I faithfully reproduced this usage in my report (although I thought it looked stupid). I would have preferred to use some more typographically friendly form, but I was unable to determine that there was a standard one. Others had referred to the firm as “Butler Burgher,” “Butler-Burgher,” “Butler & Burgher,” “Butler+Burgher,” “Butler*Burgher,” and so on. Ordinarily, I would consult the company’s Web site for guidance (usually at least the contact address will use standard characters), but alas! the firm is no longer in business.

Just one more example of the challenges that face copy editors!

Update: I see that Bill Walsh has written about the Wal-Mart “refresh” in his blog. He links to a Wal-Mart press release that in turn links to a page showing the evolution of the Wal-Mart logo.

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1 Response to The Names They Are A-Changin’

  1. Alex says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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