How We Name Things
by John Delach
The methods used to name public places has evolved over the years from the traditional approach of tagging it with an appropriate name that identifies it as the Empire State building, United Nations and Pentagon, or where it is located like the Brooklyn Bridge, Pennsylvania Turnpike and Panama Canal. Honoring individuals has always been an exception, the George Washington Bridge, Hoover Dam and the Eisenhower Locks.
But times have changed. Takes sports edifices, today, overwhelmingly, the process is how much money can you get for the naming rights. Stadiums and ball parks are the most obvious, Met Life Stadium, FedEx Field, Citi Field and AT&T Stadium are simple examples. But then it can become more complex if the old name was considered iconic. Take Denver’s appropriately named, Mile High Stadium. When it was replaced by a newer version, it morphed into Sports Authority Field at Mile High (whatever that means) or the Superdome; which, as if by magic, became the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after it was re-built following Katrina.
The more venerable playing fields have held onto their traditional names; FenwayPark, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field although the latter must include an * as it was originally named after the chewing gum family. Others change names quickly and frequently like CandlestickPark, also known as MonsterPark and 3 Com Park. Another, the Miami Dolphins home, currently named, Sun Life Stadium, but a.k.a. Land Shark, Dolphin, Pro Player and originally, Joe Robbie Stadium.
Public places have become a problem as we are just not building enough new highways, bridges, tunnels and airports to fulfill the desire to put someone’s name on them. Gone are the days when Robert Moses could take a plate load of things to bear his name, Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station and the Moses – Saunders Power Dam, Robert Moses State Parks (two of them) and Robert Moses Causeway. No, if we want to plaster a person’s name on anything but a high school, the old name must either come off or be amended to incorporate the VIP. The Triborough Bridge became the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (already a mouthful,) the Hugh Carey-Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, National Airport, Ronald Reagan-National Airport and the Queensboro Bridge, the Ed Koch-Queensboro Street Bridge. (Of course, nobody calls it that. It’s the Ed-Koch-59th Street Bridge.)
Right now the new bridge being built across the Hudson River to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge appears up for grabs. Some pundits are petitioning that it be named after Pete Seeger in recognition of his work in cleaning up the Hudson River. A couple of problems with that. Ole Pete, despite his many talents, was a member of the Communist Party and a life-long apologist for the Workers’ Paradise. Also, the existing bridge already has been christened with a politician’s name. It is the Malcolm Wilson-Tappan Zee Bridge (named after Nelson Rockefeller’s long time lieutenant governor who became governor when Rocky became Gerald Ford’s VP. Alas Malcolm only lasted a year losing to the same Hugh Carey of tunnel fame.) But most importantly, if the new bridge is to receive a new name, it’s my bet that Andy Cuomo will name it after papa Mario.
This all becomes complicated and a bit silly. Fortunately, at least the City of New York has tempered the madness by declaring that it will no longer change the official names of highways, byways and tertiary streets. Instead, if there is a good reason to honor someone, their name will be added as a ceremonial name and the appropriate sign added to the street pole. I believe they learned their lesson following the ill-fated agreement to re-name Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. The best part of this system is that if the honoree’s persona and name recognition fades into oblivion over time, few will challenge replacing it with a new ceremonial moniker. Certainly, that is a better idea then having to live with Major Deegan whoever he was.
Really well written one, john. Great story idea too!
Tom Briggs +1.917.842.6791
I really liked it
Submit to some magazine
Nice piece as usual with some interesting research.
Just to let you know that Major Deegan reported to General Average, whoever he was!!
Hey John, I really enjoyed this one! 3 comments/questions:
1-where and what is eisenhower locks?
2-always wonder why 6th Ave is aka Ave of Americas-why?
3-Re RFK bridge-everyone i know including myself still say Triboro or Tri!
Keep up the good stories!
The Eisenhower Locks are part of the St. Lawrence Seaway that opened the Great Lakes to navigation by ocen-going ships. It was a US-Canadien project that was built from 1954 to 1959 when Ike was president.
Mayor LaGuardia engineered the legistlation to re-name Sixth Ave in 1945 to promote pan american relationships and to enhance it as a sought after address which is what happened.
Over time, I think RFK will catch on as JFK did.
John, A while ago I did this column for an advertising trade journal. Maybe you will find some of it amusing. best, tom messner
Monograms Why do ad agencies love using their initials whereas law firms andbrokerage houses hold on to the full names of their founders long after theirwills are read and their remains buried or disposed of? Law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom gets shortened toSkadden or Skadden Arps but never to SASM&F. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton& Garrison, at worst, is cut to Paul Weiss; clients and adversaries alikewould never call them PWRW&G. Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz coulddrop the great first amendment lawyer Martin Garbus’s name when he left and addthe great advertising attorney Rick Kurnit without futzing around withincomprehensible initials. Merrill Lynch, for its part,dropped Pierce, Fenner, and Smith as easily as it once dropped Bean to add Smith.But never never never would it have considered adopting MLPFS. If Sullivan, Stouffer, Colwell,and Bayles had practiced law or peddled stocks and bonds instead of running avery successful ad agency, they never would have succumbed to SSC&B. Norwould Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn shorten itself to BBDO (no “and” nor“ampersand”). Oddly, neither of those agencies ever got shortened inconversation to “Sullivan” or “Batten” the way Doyle Dane Bernbach often was“Doyle” or Wells Rich Greene, “Wells.” Even two-name agencies wentthrough the alphabet routine: Ammirati and Puris (A&P), Ally & Gargano(A&G), and Benton & Bowles (B&B). B&B, when it merged withD’Arcy Macius or McManus (who remembers anyway?), became DMB&B. Foote Cone Belding, formed whenthe heads of the three offices of the agency Lord & Thomas took over andchanged the name, eventually became FCB. Try to come up with better names thanEmerson Foote, Fairfax Cone, and Don Belding to put on the door of an agency.How much more prosaic can one be than FCB? Alright, FDIC, FHA, FICA. Kentucky Fried Chicken morphed toKFC, thereby enlarging their franchise to those not particularly partial to thestate of Kentucky, the art of frying or the serving of chickens. Plus KFC alsohas the potential to lure unsuspecting Knights of Columbus members searchingfor the local K of C. International House of Pancakes became IHOP,thereby spreading their constituency beyond breakfast, beyond pancakes, beyondsyrup. British Petroleum became BP; InternationalBusiness Machines became IBM; the Generals (Electric, Telephone andElectronics, Motors) became GE, GTE, GM; American Telephone and Telegraph,perhaps the first to alphabetize became, of course, AT&T, telegraphy earlybecoming passé. Telecom has gone through a lot of namechanges, and Verizon should be congratulated for not adopting its ticker symbolVZ beyond the stock exchange. Verizon is the result of combining Bell Atlantic,New England Telephone, New York Telephone, MCI, Worldcom and maybe a few I haveforgotten. Great names such as U.S. Steel abbreviated the United States part along time ago, but its latest chopping loses any romanticism. Try to imagineduring the Havana birthday cake-cutting scene in Godfather II if Hyman Roth hadsaid: “We’re bigger than USX.” Maybe it started with radio station call letters. Thus ColumbiaBroadcasting System became CBS and National Broadcasting Company became NBC.American Broadcasting Company came along much later and slipped right into ABC.TNT, TMC, AMC, HBO, ESPN, ESPN 2, A&E, SNY, FSNY,CNBC, MSNBC, CNN, BET, MTV, VH-1, VH-2 followed. Even abbreviations have abbreviated. TheMinn of our youth became MN; Mass, MA; Calif, CA; and Penn, PA. Ad agencies slavishly follow this postalmodel, opting often for incomprehensibility believing that in their own cases,names are what you make of them. The place I am employed is called Euro RSCGbecause 15 years ago Eurocom acquired RSCG. Recently, a receptionist in the agency asked me what RSCG stood forsince she had to say it 50 times a day. “It had been a French advertisingagency,” I said, “Rostand, Séguéla, Camus and Gide.” She said, “Oh Séguéla. You’re pronouncing it all wrong. He wrote‘Hollywood Lave Blanc,’ and ‘Force Tranquil’ didn’t he? I took French in school.” “When RSCG acquired us, we were called Messner Vetere Berger CareySchmetterer,” I added. “Oh, lucky you did abbreviations or the poor receptionist would havehad to say: ‘Good morning, Rostand, Séguéla, Camus, and Gide, Messner VetereBerger Carey Schmetterer’.” “Or the other way around. Putting the Messner part first.” “Of course,” she said, “Much better.” Since 1986, the agency’s name has changed nine times with no effect.We live in a communications age when brands can be created, re-made, destroyed,re-created, re-named, re-formulated in a day. J. Walter Thompson, one of theoldest advertising agencies and one with one simple name that occasionally gotclipped in a friendly way to J. Walter, recently and formally changed its nameto JWT. The ultimate monogram, one would have thought. The management explained that baptizing itself JWT symbolized theturnaround that the agency had recently experienced. One of my partners, a buddy of CEO Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP (WIREDPRODUCTS AND PLASTICS) the parent company of JWT, offered some advice at thetime: “If they wanted to symbolize a turnaround, why not call it TWJ?”
Brilliant, even for someone outside the trade.
Good article. It took me a while to figure out what the RFK Bridge aka Triborough was. I take the stupid way to the GW – Cross Bronx Expway. I bet no one wants their name attached to that piece of s—. I was faster learning about the Koch-59St Bridge.