What’s in a name?

      15 Comments on What’s in a name?

So, in all the fuss about the Washington Football Team deciding to call themselves the Commanders (not-in-Chiefs), it occurred to me to look at all the Major League team names from a generation ago and try to think about them as if they had no history and were being proposed for a team today. I picked 1967, as being the first Super Bowl year, and also being before there were a bunch of new teams with new names because wow those ABA names. There were sixty teams combined MLB, NFL/AFL, NBA and NHL teams at that point, and 58 names because there were two Cardinals and two Giants. Both of which still make the top tier, which I’ll call

Great name!

  • Bears
  • Black Hawks
  • Broncos
  • Bruins
  • Bulls
  • Cardinals
  • Colts
  • Eagles
  • Falcons
  • Giants
  • Hawks
  • Jets
  • Lions
  • Pirates
  • Tigers

If you were looking to name a team and these teams didn’t already exist, you would absolutely pick one from this list. I suppose it’s possible that people could object to the Pirates or the Jets, but seriously, those are good names for teams. Animals, mostly. And it’s about a quarter of the total.

I’ve called the next tier

We can work with this

  • 49ers
  • Cowboys
  • Cubs
  • Dolphins
  • Orioles
  • Rams

There may be disagreement here, but I’m trying to imagine a meeting where they are presenting possible team names, and the guy says animal names are great, but people love baby animals! And everyone starts thinking about all the plush toys and nods a lot and then they settle on… The Cubs. They can work with it! But it wouldn’t be a great name. Just a little bit better than the ones in the middle tier:

Maybe go back to the marketing guys

  • 76ers
  • Athletics
  • Astros
  • Canadiens
  • Chargers
  • D-dgers
  • Maple Leafs
  • Patriots
  • Pistons
  • Raiders
  • Senators
  • Steelers

I mean, clearly the teams have worked with these names just fine. And I personally think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the all-time great team names! But again, bringing any of these names to the executive board of a brand-new team in 2012, and… I’m thinking they don’t go for them right away. With the exception of the D-dgers, which were an accident, they all smell like focus groups gone wrong. Although still very clearly above the second-to-last tier:

Yeah, no

  • Angels
  • Browns
  • Celtics
  • Knicks
  • Lakers
  • Mets
  • Oilers
  • Packers
  • Phillies
  • Reds
  • Red Sox
  • Red Wings
  • Royals
  • Twins
  • Warriors
  • White Sox

This is a long list, isn’t it? And again, some of these teams are beloved and their names and mascots or logos turned out to be hugely successful. Generations of fans are invested in them. But really? Browns? These would be rejected instantly by any new organization. But not rejected as quickly and vehemently as…


  • Bills
  • Bullets
  • Braves
  • Chiefs
  • Indians
  • Rangers*
  • Red----s
  • Vikings
  • Yankees

This is a group—and it’s a full sixth of the teams—that I cannot imagine the marketing guys even bringing to the execs, and if they did I can’t imagine the execs not instantly firing the them, and if the execs approved the name I can’t imagine the league allowing it.

I did put an asterisk on one, because it is true that the Texas Rangers is also an excellent name for a team, and I could actually imagine the name going through all of the levels of approval despite it also being a terrible and offensive name that should be rejected instantly if it came up today. These are terrible names that should all have been changed already. My guess is that the Bills, Rangers, Vikings and Yankees will still be sticking to their names in fifty years (and all of the ones in the next tier up) but who knows.

I mean, if it were up to me, my preference would be for teams to change their names every few years like they did in the 19th century, with oddball names like the Superbas and the Perfectos and the Resolutes, or taking the name of their stars like the Naps or Kelly’s Killers. I know that wouldn’t work, but it would entertain me, and that’s the important thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

15 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. irilyth

    Huh, is “Blackhawks” not a Native American tribal name? TSOR suggests maybe not, I wonder why I thought it was.

    Huh, well, maybe it’s the fact that the team logo is a war-painted Native American looking person. :^p

    Why are the Texas Rangers an offensive name? I wouldn’t want to call my national team the US Marshalls, or my city team the Boston Police, but I would’ve said “terrible” rather than “offensive” for those, so I’m probably missing something.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The Texas Rangers, like Buffalo Bill, were originally known for their prowess at massacring indigenous people.

      And yeah, the history of the name “Black Hawk” and its connotations probably do take it out of the great name category. It is a great name, but… ugh.


      1. irilyth

        Ah, I had no idea what the original Texas Rangers were originally famous for.

        The fact that Bills is a terrible pun is enough to put it on the Just No list for me. The horrible history doesn’t help at all. :^p

      2. Chris Cobb

        That’s not my understanding of the source of Bill Cody’s reputation or of his dealings with Native Americans in general. There’s a good story on the question of whether the Bills should change their name that gives an in-depth account of Cody’s complicated history:


        Black Hawk is not a tribal name but the name of a Native American leader of particular fame in northern Illinois. He was a chief of the Sauk tribe, whose lands had historically been in what is now northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. On the basis of (unsurprisingly) disputed treaties, the Sauk were forced to leave their lands in 1828 and relocate west of the Mississippi River. Black Hawk was not reconciled to this relocation. In 1832 he led many of his people back across the Mississippi, precipitating the last major conflict between Native Americans and the United States east of the Mississippi. It is generally known as the Black Hawk war. Following the war, Black Hawk dictated an autobiography and was an eloquent speaker on behalf of Native Americans while seeking reconciliation with the settlers. Consequently, he is a well-known regional historical figure. The team’s position is that because their team is named for an actual person, it is a different case from the names of the Cleveland baseball team, the Atlanta baseball team, and the Washington football team. As of 2020, the team’s position was that it was not considering changing them name, believing that their use of the name is respectful. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/08/us/chicago-blackhawks-name-spt-trnd/index.html)

        Naming teams for people seems like a practice best avoided, although it was once relatively common. Am I correct in picking out the Browns as the only other example in this set of names?

        1. Vardibidian Post author

          My understanding is that the early basis for Bill Cody’s fame was his work as a sharpshooter in the genocidal “Indian Wars”. And the other part, of course, was his skill at wiping out the buffalo, which also isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. But the general point you bring up is one I totally agree with—naming teams for individuals is not a good idea, in the long term. If teams changed names every few years, it would be different, but that’s not really going to happen in the modern commercial age.

          (There are different stories about which of the New York Gothams of the 1880s was the inspiration, but I think we can safely say that the Giants name caught on because of the general association with power and size rather than with any specific person.)


          1. irilyth

            > If teams changed names every few years, it would be different, but that’s not really going to happen in the modern commercial age.

            I dunno, ballparks are changing names every few years; why not teams? How long before we have the Chicago Big Macs and the New England Staples?

  2. Michael

    Why the difference between Cardinals and Orioles? They’re both common birds of comparable size.

    I love the Astros as the Houston team name when our push into space exploration was a source of national pride and was centered in Houston.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The difference is that Cardinals are terrific and Orioles are goofy. I don’t know how I feel about Blue Jays, but fortunately I picked a year when I didn’t have to decide. It would be worth ranking Smallish Birds as Team Names (the swifts! the robins! the tits!) but that would be a different post.

      As for the Astros, I think that’s one of those names that was a good idea but aged poorly. I can’t help thinking that Rockets would have been a better name to begin with. Or maybe just go with full on Astronauts, rather than just Astros.


  3. Chaos

    I would like to remind the jury that A. the Rockets are a basketball team, and also got their name in the 60s (though oddly they were named before they moved to Houston), and B. the Astros were originally named “the Houston Colt .45s.”

    Given this evidence, i fully expect a prompt verdict of “never mind, this is great.”

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      I had, in fact, made the comment (in another place) that the name Astros probably looked a lot better when it was the alternative to Colt .45s. That doesn’t make it a great team name, but definitely got it into the “we can work with that” territory.

      But the point is not how something looked at the time, but how it would look if someone just came up with it today, and… not really seeing it getting a lot of support.


  4. Chris Cobb

    In terms of what teams should or shouldn’t be named for, what do you think about the Kansas City Royals being named for the Kansas City Monarchs?

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      It’s a really good question. I think if it were clearly done as a kind of homage, I would be absolutely OK with it. The thing where they pretend it was about the cattle show is… less OK.


      1. Chris Cobb

        The multiple associations of names (sliding signifiers, anyone?) make them tricky, don’t they? I keep coming back, though, to the names on your “Yeah, No” because it looks to me like the “this would be rejected” names are doing many different kinds of naming, and it’s not clear to me that they are all equally problematic from either an ethical or marketing perspective. So I am puzzling over the criteria.

        Reds, Red Sox, and White Sox all derive from nineteenth-century naming conventions related to identifying uniform features that are no longer current, so they wouldn’t work as names for new teams. For the teams that carry them now, of course, they work well because they hold so much history and are a sign that “this is an old-school team.” But one wouldn’t try to name a team this way now — it would look silly.

        A lot of the names here, though, are attempts at regional associations or identities: Celtics, Lakers, Mets, Oilers, Packers, Phillies, Royals, and Twins. I’m not sure what you see as differentiating this set of names from, say, 76ers, Pistons, Senators, or Steelers. I mean, Phillies is pretty silly and 76ers is obviously a better name for a Philly team, but Packers vs. Steelers? Maybe the dynamism of Pistons is better for an athletic team than the staidness (not to say do-nothing-ness) of Senators, but you see both of those as at the same level? If “Lakers” didn’t alliterate with “Los Angeles,” I think that name would have been changed long ago, but is it a bad name for a team from Minnesota? (The problems with using an ethnic group for regional identity are pretty obvious, of course–I am not sure why “Celtics” doesn’t end up in the “O My Lord No” group on this basis.)

        How can regional identity be appropriately asserted for a team, or should it be avoided like person names, and on similar grounds?

        Maybe uniform colors as a basis for team names should come back into style? The Vikings could become the Purple Helmets?

        1. Vardibidian Post author

          These are all fine questions, and I will try to give them some thought.

          The reason Oilers and Packers are significantly below the Steelers and Pistons is that oil-drilling and meat-packing currently have (imao) more negative connotations than steel-working or even auto-manufacturing. I could surely be wrong about that! But that’s why they wound up on the tiers they are. On the other hand, there isn’t that much steel-working going on in Pittsburgh these days, I’m told.

          Nobody ever calls the Founders 76ers. You can understand what it means, but it isn’t an actual thing that people call them. People do still refer to the California prospectors as forty-niners, though, so that’s the difference there.

          Lakers are as low as they are because I don’t think it means anything to anyone—what do Lakers do on or near a lake that makes them Lakers? I’m not aware that Minnesotans call themselves Lakers these days (I do know some, and I could ask them) so that name has aged poorly. Chargers are similar, in that it isn’t obvious what is being Charged or in what way.

          The regional identity is a bit of a minefield, honestly, because the priority is on global marketing, but regional identity can be an important part of that. My personal preference would be for more local and goofier names but I think that it would be hard for a new major-league franchise to go for one of those. Plus, of course, the whole thing that I allude to above, where local industries or other claims to fame are subject to the vagaries of time, just as the once-celebrated individuals may later be reviled or forgotten. Hartford has a soft spot for the Whalers, but not for the whaling industry. It’s possible that in fifty years, Silicon Valley will not be known for or proud of the high-tech industry, or even New Orleans for Jazz. That doesn’t mean that they would make for terrible names now, but names that might not age well.


  5. Chris Cobb

    Thanks for the additional insights!

    I’d agree that from the standpoint of “no one calls themselves that,” 76ers is a weak name, and so is Lakers (though I’d be happy to be corrected by Minnesotans who know), but 49ers isn’t. However, as I start to pay attention to the 49ers as a name, I have to note that if one of our criteria for suitable team names is that they should avoid connecting teams to the history of genocide against Native Americans by the United States, then 49ers belongs on the list of names that should go.

    In thinking more about the regional identity issue, it does seem durability is a big issue, as regions change and change again. But I’m not sure how much that matters for naming a new team. The important thing in that case is that the name work now to build brand recognition. If your team name survives long enough to seem out of date, that’s a sign of a successful franchise, and once the name has its own proud history, it doesn’t matter if it has become nonsensical in relation to the home city. But maybe pick the name cautiously, so that you can be proud of those otherwise meaningless Red Sox or of a defunct association with jazz rather than embarrassed by an association with the whaling industry?

    I’m tending now to stick to my conclusion that colors are good options. The Carolina Aqua? Or maybe landforms. The Carolina Piedmonts?


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