Some Rich Guy

I’m sure you’ve heard this old joke: guy goes up to a traffic cop in New York City and says, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” and the cop says, “Well, first you found a company that dominates American steel production in the late 19th century…”

I may be telling it wrong. The point is that Carnegie Hall is many things–an actual theater in New York, the symbolic apotheosis of success as a performing artist, and somewhere down the list it is also the namesake of industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie. I bet at this point the namesake sense is the least prevalent in most people’s minds. Both because Carnegie has been dead a long time, and because he put his name on everything: Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, a whole passel of public libraries around the U.S. Getting your name on a building may seem like a route to immortality, but after a while people will forget that you were anything but a building. (I am Ozymandias–come into my lobby, ye Mighty, and purchase a cinnamon bun.) If I ever make a pile of money, I’m going to start the Some Rich Guy Foundation, and the beneficiaries of my largess will be required to install brass plaques that say things like “This hospital wing made possible by a generous donation from Some Rich Guy”.

That’s why I’m not bothered by the current practice of companies paying to put their names on sports stadiums. Not just because there’s a long history of this kind patronage, but because company names are odder and more specific to their eras than personal names. Carnegie and Rockefeller are clearly people, but what the hell is a 3Com? I’m sorry that name didn’t persist as a bit of lapidary weirdness left over from the dot-com era but am pleased to see that similar sediment has already started to collect in Seattle. Down by the two big sports stadiums is a convention and concert venue called the WaMu Theater. WaMu is short for Washington Mutual, a once high-flying bank that went spectacularly out of business in the 2008 crash. The name rhymes with Shamu and rolls off the tongue of anyone who has lived in Washington for years, but really when you think about it sounds idiotic–like a excited toddler describing a wet cow. The bank is long gone, but its cryptic abbreviation and CamelCase logo live on to puzzle generations of future Seattleites. This is language evolution in action.

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