Among some tribal societies, a person’s True Name must not be altered or profaned. And in many of the world’s mythologies, to name is to create (“In the beginning was the Word”). So by inference, to rename is to damage or destroy.

Consider the fate of Chinese Communist Party secretary Li Hsueh-feng. When he fell out of favour during China’s Cultural Revolution, his superiors punished him with a new name. “The slight modification of a character, while preserving its sound, has long been a medium of official language insults. This is especially true of a language where a single syllable can have more than 40 different meanings, depending on how it is written,” observed language guru Charles Berlitz. Poor Li woke up one morning to discover his name had been changed from “Snowy Mountaintop” to the equivalent of “Bloody Weirdo.”
Another target was Fu Chu’ung Pi, a former commander in the Peking garrison. He found his name altered from “Magnificent Precious Stone” to “Corpse of Miserable Worm.”

A voluntary name change is a different story. It can represent an opportunity to cast off the past and start anew (Paul Hewson became Bono; Stefani Germanotta morphed into Lady Gaga; Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz shed his skin for Jon Stewart). For a large corporations — they’re people too! — the gambit can be a way to ditch a problematic brand identity.
For example, Philip Morris Companies Inc. became Altria Group in 2003, to introduce “clarity” into a company with a history of PR problems involving its flagship product, cancer sticks. Although the company still owns Philip Morris U.S., the term “Altria Group” it’s more likely to conjure a question mark in consumers’ minds than a curlicue of smoke.

Yet for letterhead gymnastics, you can’t beat the security services Academi, formerly known as Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater. The latter was co-founded in 1997 by former Navy Seal and Christian fundamentalist Erik Prince. In short order Blackwater began behaving like a crusading paramilitary outfit answerable only to Prince’s putative boss — God — and was banned from Iraq after a shootout in the streets of Baghdad in 2007 that resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The company responded decisively with a remake as Xe Services.

In December 2011, Xe was reinvented as “Academi.” The name, a riff on Plato’s Academy, was meant convey a more “boring” image, according to CEO Ted Wright. (A spot of trouble in Iraq? That was SO two names ago!) Academi is now the largest of the U.S. State Department’s three private security contractors, which suggests there’s no corporate injury so serious that a Band-Aid of a noun can’t mask it.

The Madonna-like reinvention routines extend to a military base in Georgia. “The School of The Americas” at Fort Benning has been slammed by activists as a north-south conduit of human rights abuses, through its training of Latin American security forces. In 2004 its name was changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. WHINSEC? Sounds like a software patch to me.

Not all big name changes in business and government are as dubious as those above. The 2013 decision by CEO Thorsten Heins to rename his lesser-recognized Research in Motion (RIM) with the handle of its iconic smartphone, BlackBerry, made sense on paper — even though some tech commentators interpreted the move as a staggering company’s last shot at self-inflation.

Some name change proposals beg the question, why? In spite of four consecutive majority Liberal governments, Premier Christy Clark recently floated the idea of renaming the B.C. Liberal Party with a new, more “inclusive” moniker that won’t be confused with the federal Liberal party. Not that fiddling with terminology is likely to help or hinder the Libs’ performance. Every provincial election since 2001, this scandal-hardened crew sails into a majority by default, courtesy apathetic British Columbians with the attention spans of gerbils on Benzedrine.

If the party’s current name is barely sensible, it’s perfectly consistent with politics in B.C., where 41 per cent of eligible voters went AWOL in 2013. I’m tempted to tag you democratic abstainers as “bloody weirdos” or “miserable worms.”

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 23

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