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Original Issue


Ira Bachrach is more than willing to name names; his 5-year-old San Francisco firm, NameLab, creates new ones for companies and products.

Bachrach and his staff of two linguists begin the process by selecting from a table of 6,000 those morphemes, or word fragments, that, they hope, convey the appropriate meaning and characteristics of the thing to be named. The word bits are then fed into a computer, which combines them into words. The team evaluates the computer's list and looks for winners—names with the proper denotation, connotation, length, symbolism and marketing impact. Using this technique, Bachrach, a 45-year-old former engineer, has come up with names for a Datsun model (the Sentra), a service of Federal Express (ZapMail), a chain of retail computer stores for Nynex (Datago) and identities for products made by close to 100 other corporations including Ford, Chrysler, Gillette, General Mills and Pepsico.

However, if you really want to get Bachrach excited, ask him what he thinks of the names of pro sports teams. He has never had a team as a client, but he's an avid fan and has given the topic plenty of thought. In fact, he contends, fans get more "feel" for a team if they can readily think and talk about its name. In this way, he says, a sports team's name can be a marketing tool just like the brand name of a product.

"You'll notice that fans like to call their own team by a less formal, 'familiar' name, usually made up of two sounds or less, because people habitually apply this speech pattern to words they think of or speak fairly often," he says. Forty-niners are transmuted into Niners, Orioles into Birds. If a team's name can't readily be cut down, Bachrach says, its fans will often change it anyway: "You can't shorten Cowboys because Boys would be denigratory and Cows would be ludicrous. So in Dallas the Cowboys are sometimes called the Pokes, a variation on cowpokes."

A good team name also should sound distinctive when said or thought, to impress the team's identity on a fan's mind. "Several team names in the USFL," Bachrach says, "were apparently designed by marketing people. The [Los Angeles] Express is a brilliant name because the combination of sounds making up the word express is a relatively rare one. And the Yankees? A great name. It's unique—there's no other word quite like Yankees in the language." For the same reason, Bachrach likes Celtics, but isn't crazy about Bills: "It's a common collection of sounds. It can only be said without energy."

Then there's the even more complex matter of a name's origin. "One big purpose of a team name," says Bachrach, "is to make local fans think of the team as 'our team.' "By this standard, he continues, both the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers, franchises whose names were highly appropriate when they were located in New Orleans and Minneapolis, respectively, now have "names that tell their current fans, 'This isn't your team, it's someone else's.' "

And, adds Bachrach, a final shortcoming of a team name can be its unintelligibility. "Mariners is a hilariously bad name. The real tipoff is that the Mariners have been calling themselves the M's. When you can't make a significant piece of language out of the name, you use just the first letter." Similarly, he says, the New England Patriots have a team name that is "an archaic word, abstract. And when you turn it into Pats, you've got something that doesn't even relate to the meaning of the original name."

And what's Bachrach's favorite team name? "The best in sports," he says, "is the St. Louis Blues. It's integral and meaningful to the city the team plays in—when you say St. Louis you think blues and vice versa." On the other hand, he isn't as crazy about team names that outwardly seem to have a lot of pizzazz: "SuperSonics is nice in that it connotes speed, power and the fact that Boeing airplanes are built in Seattle. But it's such a long and complicated word that it won't stick in the mind of a fan."

In fact, says Bachrach, Seattle's NBA club would be wise to call a press conference and announce a name change. "The team may be Sonics now as a familiar form," he says, "but that means sound and doesn't precisely say jet airplane. The Sonics' newer fans must think they were named after a stereo system."