Saturday, December 31, 2011

It All Started With Lucent

Look, we actually like faux-Latin. We think it's funny, and -- frankly, our own command of the actual language being what it is -- we often find ourselves mumbling the faux variety when we didn't mean to. (Hey, it's not not like we're offending the natives, right?)

But when Bell Labs changed its name to Lucent in 1997, it was like Pandora opening her box. What followed was a deluge of macaronic neologisms: Altria, Vocera, and on and on. And why? "Bell Labs" was easily the most respected name in privately sponsored research. They invented everything you've ever heard of, and their original name carried so much weight that, as the company's fortunes declined, Lucent eventually re-rebranded itself as Bell Labs again, in a futile effort to stave off its corporate decline and retreat from basic science.

Despite this, other companies jumped right onto the bandwagon. Latin was appealing because the rebranders could easily find familiar-sounding words that nobody had yet used. Lucent itself, of course, is a form of luceo: they shine. But its successors got wilder and wilder. Novartis, for example, might conceivably be a dative or ablative plural of the feminine noun "novarta," meaning new art -- if such a word existed, which it doesn't. It's just gobbledygook, and transparently fake gobbledygook at that.

But the dogs piled on. James Archer has a list of them here, several of which he counts among "the biggest jokes in corporate naming." And you know what's on the list, right?

Thrivent. Of course.

The names of Lutheran Brotherhood and the Aid Association for Lutherans may not have been quite as prestigious as Bell Labs, but they sent a message of solidity and community. Thrivent, a Latinate verb ending stuck onto an Old Norse root, sends just the opposite message. It cries out phoniness, fakery, Potemkin-villagery. And, for the record, we at the Egg like Thrivent, a lot, and have trusted it with much of our financial well-being. We're just worried about the name, which stinks of desperation and lack of corporate confidence.

So comes now the most ominous name-change yet. The ELCA Board of Pensions is changing its name to Portico. The word itself is not fake; it is a real English word, with obvious Latin roots (porticus and of course porta). And that's the nicest thing we can say about it.

In an astonishing bit of double-speak, the BOP website claims that "We're changing our name to be clear about who we are and what we do." This is nonsense of the arrant variety. "ELCA Board of Pensions" was nice and clear. Sure, they've had some bad publicity lately, as the value of their investments (and therefore ours) has plummeted. But at least you knew what the organization was there for.

As for the new name, well, it doesn't say much of anything. The publicity makes a big deal about how a portico is a covered area where people gather, and well as the entrance into "something larger" -- they mention Solomon's Temple, although not a church, but let's assume that's what they meant. There's no real sense to this; they aren't a social organization, and they although they serve the church's mission, they certainly aren't leaders in evangelism per se.

Color us mystified, and annoyed. And a little scared: it took twenty years from the moment of its rebranding for Bell Labs to get out of basic science. How long will it take the Board of Pensions to get out of ... pensions?

On the other hand, you can't fight progress, or city hall, or the tide. Maybe this is a good and God-pleasing development, soon to be followed not merely by church-related organizations, but by churches themselves. After all, none of us likes the alphabet soup that makes churches sound like New Deal agencies, so maybe it's time for some ecclesiastical rebranding. Here are some suggestions; yours are welcome:
  • The Presbyterian Church USA becomes ... Kirkitas.
  • The RCA becomes ... Extra-Calvinisticum.
  • The United Methodist Church becomes ...
  • The Roman Catholic Church ... well, they already think they have trademark protection on "The Church," so they're not going anywhere.*
  • The United Church of Christ becomes ... Occupy Wall Street.
As for our own tribe:
  • The LC-MS has often been ... Virulent.
  • The ELCA, if not careful, may wind up ... Silent.
* The Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA is in court right now, fighting the RCC's trademark claim.


stynxno said...

When I saw this announced change a few months ago, I very much had a "whaaa???" moment. My guess is that they were trying to get away from the 2008/2009 recession debacle. I'm also guessing that the name change is designed to bring non-elca funding into the company since, well, there's only so many pastors and seminarians out there and they only have so much money - probably not enough to rebuild their endowment (and they probably don't trust the organization anymore either).

This is all speculation, of course, but I find it very strange. Sure, the original name was long, boring, and not an easy brand but it at least said something about its target audience and what the organization is for. The new name has no brand history nor does it really mean anything. And as I'm getting close to getting a job where I'll have the option to join the organization, I honestly don't trust them - in fact, I don't know them at all. I'm leaning to sticking to Vanguard and T Rowe Price instead.

Pastor S. Blake Duncan said...

I hate it - it is ridiculous to change the name. But then I am still annoyed that AAL got changed the Thrivent - which is, in my humble opinion - another idiotic name change.
Happy New Year!

mark said...

Re: the asterisk. They seem to enjoy lawsuits. We might re-label them: TLC ("The Litigious Church"). ;))

Anna Sorenson said...

Of course, Board of Pensions DOESN'T offer a pension... and thus the confusion when retired pastors had their annuity payments decreased in the economic downturn. "But, its a guaranteed pension!" many cried. And so, we are on our way out the portico.