This is the third installment in my series of four posts on sports team naming. What nearly all the names in this post have in common is that they are not based on identifiable creatures that have ever walked the Earth, not on man nor beast. Those names either have no meaning outside the context of the team (Athletics, Astros) or refer to phenomena, abstractions, or objects that can’t be easily related to the human activity of sports competition (Hurricanes, Magic, Spurs), if at all.
In place of names like those considered in the previous posts (On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds, On the Naming of Sports Teams II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations), which link a team to a species or historical group, thus implicitly allowing for the existence of individual personalities of the team members, some of these team names present monolithic regional symbols or indivisible abstractions. They conflate team loyalty with brand loyalty. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that most of the worst names are relatively recent ones given to professional teams formed in league expansion.
Evidently, the human mind can adjust to having a baseball team named for a mountain range (Rockies), even though it jars logic to think of the individual players as mountains, a paradigm of immobility. And a musical genre (Jazz), an abstraction which cannot logically be broken into parts for connecting to individual persons, presumably serves well enough as a team name, or at least as a placeholder for one. Still, I can’t help thinking that these illogical and homogenized names are like a background noise that one adjusts to, but which nonetheless causes ongoing psychic stress.
Let me put it this way: these team names are not of anything a child could pretend to be in play. Well, Marcel Proust, who might for a brief period of confusion at the edge of sleep imagine himself to be a string quartet, possibly could, but not an ordinary child. Would any child pretend to be a nugget, a spur, or a hurricane? These names are not play-worthy. That makes them, in my mind, unworthy of serving as a team’s name, and I’m glad to have hit upon the perfect criterion by which to judge whether a name is even worth considering.
Here are my proposed categories for the rest of the non-Indian team names. As with the earlier categories, there are some names that could fit into more than one category and some that don’t fit well into any of them, but which aren’t worth a new category. I give but one example for each subcategory in the listing, but mention more in the discussion that follows.
(A) plural (Reds)
(B) singular (Crimson)
(C) uniform identifiers (Red Sox)
7. Manufactured names
(A) adjectives as nouns (Athletics)
(B) local contrivances (Expos)
(C) abstractions (Magic)
(D) meaningless names (Hokies)
8. Forces of nature
(A) emphasizing the collective (Crimson Tide)
(B) weather phenomena (Lightning)
(C) destructive phenomena viewed as individuals (Hurricanes)
9. Inanimate objects
(A) associated with speed (Rockets)
(B) associated with location (Buckeyes)
(C) others (Nets)
In addition to names, all teams have at least one identifying color, which the team members and many fans wear or otherwise display. It is a secondary way of identifying with the team. Fans and followers of the teams may identify with the colors as much as with the names, and in some cases the team is just named after one of its colors. I think the naming of a team for a color has a quasi concreteness about it, because it is directly tied to the team without an intervening image or abstract mental excursion. In politics, if we hear Greens or Reds, we have an immediate idea of the group, and I think the same is true for teams named for colors.
Team names designated by color (6A) include the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Blues, Cleveland and (in the past) St. Louis Browns. The choice is one with ancient roots: chariot teams of Rome were identified by color, since it was the only way to tell them apart at a distance. The St. Louis Blues NHL team name is kind of a pun with a local reference, because of a famous song, but I’m calling it a color, which saves it from the abstractions category 7C, into which its kindred name Utah Jazz has been placed.
I had thought Harvard Crimson was the only team named for a singular color (6B), which abstractly emphasizes the group rather than its members. It’s different from Alabama’s Crimson Tide, where crimson modifies the noun representing the team. But as I wrote this, I discovered that Stanford goes by Cardinal, another shade of red that sounds derivative, but seems not to be, at least not completely. I had known that Stanford’s Cardinal referred to the color, as opposed to the bird, but I’d thought Stanford used the plural Cardinals. The old Stanford name Indians was nixed in 1972 as offensive, and I just saw on Wikipedia that they used the plural version Cardinals until the singular Cardinal was made the name by school president fiat. It does look a little like wanting to step into an elite circle of two with Harvard, but maybe it was only to get rid of the bird name confusion. I note that North Texas, though nominally still going by the name Eagles, has pretty much joined the singular color club with Harvard and Stanford, but with an adjective meant to be intimidating: Mean Green.
Teams identified by the color of their “Sox” (Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox) are really a variation on the team color category 5A, but with concrete imagery. There is some confusion about this, though, as an individual Boston player may be called by some a Red Sock, or even self-identify that way, as though the name belonged to the inanimate object category 9C. I think the absurdity of that image makes the point rather well that this is a team color name. The Cincinnati Reds were known for a time as the Cincinnati Redlegs, an awkward name chosen not for concreteness but to avoid the association with Communism that “Reds” evoked. Red Sox was already taken, and the old Red Stockings name probably sounded too effeminate, so they went with Redlegs from 1953 to 1959. This was such an unattractive name that it’s hard to believe they actually used it, but this was the time of “better dead than red,” so having an ugly name was a comparatively minor sacrifice.
It was a tough call whether to put the Detroit Red Wings name in 6C or 7D (for meaningless names), but since the wings are on the team uniforms, and the color is an essential part of the name, I decided to put it into the group with Red Sox.
Included in the names that are pluralized adjectives (7A) are the Oakland Athletics, Boston Celtics, Kansas City Royals, and Washington Nationals. The Oakland team uses a totem-animal elephant identifier as well, since there really isn’t any way to depict an “Athletic”. Royals actually could be considered a noun directly, as those of royal blood are called that. But I’ve already refused in the previous post to make a special category for kings. However dubious a grammatical practice this turning of adjectives into nouns may be, it’s clear these names are meant to apply to individual human beings, the players on the team, supposedly endowed with the characteristics specified in the name. These characteristics are more abstract than the wearing of a certain uniform item, but the principle of self-referential naming applies.
The locally contrived names (7B), which include Montreal Expos (in the past), Houston Astros, and Washington Capitals, go a step beyond the association of team members with defining characteristics to assigning them membership in nonexistent local groups. Still, the names are meant to apply to individual human beings. The problem with these names is that it’s even harder to picture them than those of 7A.
The MLB Expos of Montreal were an egregious example of the contrived local name category. Yes, there was a Worlds Fair in Montreal once, called the Expo, but it is ridiculous to call baseball players Expos. A worlds fair cannot be personified. The MLB Houston Astros also come to mind. There is no such thing as an Astro. It’s a prefix. I know Houston has a NASA Center, but this was a bad choice.
Washington Capitals? There is one national capital, and it’s a city. This name almost made it into the category of nonsensical names along with Suns, another unique thing used in the plural, but since it makes up a name (as applied to hockey players) with a tight local connection, I think the locally contrived name category is fitting.
Names that are abstractions include Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Utah (formerly New Orleans) Jazz, New England Revolution, and Minnesota Wild. These are names that clearly have no intention of providing a way to visualize an individual team member from the team’s name (with the possible exception of the Revolution). This kind of name is my least favorite. I’m afraid I would ban them if I had the power as a league commissioner.
Jazz started out as at least a local reference in New Orleans, but makes no sense at all in Utah. Heat might arguably be placed in the weather phenomenon category 8B. Heat Wave would be, but Heat by itself is just too vague. It really only serves to suggest an unpleasant, inescapable experience, which is perhaps why the name has also been used as a slang term for the police (like Fuzz). I could live with Magicians, might even set up a special category for them with the Wizards, but Magic is the very worst team name of all.
I’m putting the New England Revolution in with the abstractions as well. As opposed to the Patriots and Minutemen names, which refer to individuals joined by a common name because of their making history together in a common cause, Revolution refers to a historical event or process, which in a sense stands above the participants. The Revolution name is much like the forces of nature names of category 8A.
Among names I call made-up and meaningless (7D) are Virginia Tech Hokies, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, and Indiana Pacers. Silly as these are, they are like the locally contrived names of category 7A in inviting us to think of individual team members as being Hokies or Bills or whatever.
The name Hokies was deliberately chosen by students in the desire to have a completely meaningless, made-up name. In a way, it’s like choosing a color for a name, for there is no mental image of a Hokie to slow the mind’s transition from name to team.
Indiana Pacers is another dumb professional team name, meaning not much of anything, supposedly combining (abstractly) the pacing horse of harness racing with the pace car of the Indianapolis 500!
The San Diego Chargers might be thought of as spirited horses, but it turns out the owner liked the crowd shout of “Charge!” after the bugle call at ball games, and that is where the name came from. Who’s charging? To further confuse matters, the Chargers have something like a lightning bolt for the team symbol, which makes me think of AAA road service for a dead battery.
Texas Tech Red Raiders is a rare, if not unique, case of a name containing Red that has been certified not to refer to Native Americans. Originally named the Matadors, the team, which wore red uniforms, took on the Red Raiders name about the time a guy made a dramatic entrance on horseback before a game, bullfighter’s red cape now trailing behind him (like a superhero’s), eyes covered with a Lone Ranger or Zorro mask. This became a tradition and presumably defines what a Red Raider is supposed to look like. The idea of a whole group of caped Lone Ranger lookalikes is comical though. It is possible to imagine kids pretending to be this kind of Red Raider, but it is still a made-up name that only looks good compared to names like Buffalo Bills.
What about the Buffalo Bills? Buffalo Bill Cody was a real person. He made a name for himself killing bison by the thousands to feed railroad workers, then formed a touring Wild West show. So, since buffaloes don’t have bills, and I can’t think of what a generic bill would be, I am forced to picture a bunch of identical guys with a certain kind of beard and wearing western garb, brandishing rifles. What does their sideline cartoon character look like? A blue buffalo. So, possibly without realizing it, they are trying to get back to the safety of a totem animal, which presumably even has some historical local connection, given the city’s name.
The Phoenix Suns are put in category 7D for want of a better place. Everyone knows what the Sun is, so it is not a made-up name in that sense. Maybe kings and suns should go into a special category for names of magnificence, which become absurd when applied to a whole team. But there logically can be multiple kings for multiple kingdoms, while there is only one Sun, which makes Suns possibly the most ridiculous of all team names. Yes, I know that the Sun is but one of many of stars, but there is only one Sun. This choice of name seems an attempt to sell what the desert has plenty of, but without stopping to think it through. Sunrays would make more sense, which is not to say it would be good. If a Sun reference is desired, the name Phoenix Sunburns would convey the idea of inflicting pain on opponents without the Satanic imagery of Arizona State’s Sun Devils. Sunstrokes might be even better, as that name evokes images of opponents brought to the ground.
Names that are forces of Nature, which in the singular are presumably meant to bring to mind a team’s powerful collective action, include Alabama Crimson Tide, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Colorado Avalanche, Tulane Green Wave, Chicago Fire (MLS), and Colorado Rapids (MLS).
It’s possible for members of a team and their fans to think of themselves as part of a collective that works together to make a powerful whole, so that taken together the group could be called, symbolically, the Crimson Tide or the Golden Hurricane. If an army could be given such a nickname, then it could work for a team. Natural forces, especially those of the irresistible or devastating type are sometimes chosen. Tulsa’s Golden Hurricane (singular) makes more sense than Miami U’s 8C plural Hurricanes name, but it seems odd to an outsider, since a golden hurricane is not easily pictured, unlike the Green Wave of Tulane, which brings to mind something like a tidal wave, even if a wave of green-clad athletes is meant. Note that Alabama, like Oakland, has chosen an elephant as a visual totem-animal representation of the team.
The Chicago Fire references a famous local destructive event, and fits into 8A as well as any other category. I guess it didn’t bother the namers that the fire destroyed much of the city the team represents. I’m not sure whether the Colorado Rapids are supposed to be admired like the Rockies are feared like the Avalanche, but I can’t think of a better place to put them than here. Rapid is an adjective, so they could also be, secondarily (as a pun), an example of an adjective turned into a noun to denote individuals (7A).
The singular noun weather names (8B), Oklahoma City Thunder and Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL), are both associated with the same frightful phenomenon. Except for having the notions of sudden action, danger, and impressive sensory stimuli in their favor, they are like Heat in being abstractions difficult to identify human beings with. They are something like the names of 8A. But, since they are intermittent phenomena, not as easily associated with massive group activity, I think they deserve a separate category. Thunder Claps and Lightning Bolts would go into 8C.
Category 8C contains names that implicitly identify the team’s players with destructive phenomena through the use of the plural. These include Iowa State Cyclones, Miami and Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames (NHL), and San Jose Earthquakes (MLS).
Hurricanes are really too big to associate with individuals, even in the imagination, but the Miami University (FL) and Carolina NHL teams make the attempt. Cyclones in Iowa are tornadoes. These are at least confined to a smaller area and thus a little easier to associate with individual players, but nothing about a bunch of tornadoes suggests co-ordinated action. Flames are the plural representation of fire, which can be viewed as a destructive natural phenomenon. I thought Hurricanes covered too large an area to make sense, but Earthquakes take the prize for sheer physical extent, not to mention impossibility of visualization.
Inanimate objects that at least move through space rapidly have been chosen to name the Houston Rockets, New York and Winnipeg Jets, Seattle Supersonics (in the past), and Baltimore Bullets (in the past).
The Houston Rockets NBA team, like the city’s MLB team, the Astros (7B), uses a space theme to associate it with the local NASA center. Rockets are as inanimate as Spurs and Nuggets (see below), but they are at least speedily mobile and self-propelled and, unlike the Astros, refer to something beyond the team itself. Jets and Supersonics (now defunct) are also fast and self-propelled, though none of them can purposefully guide themselves. Now that I think of it, could the name of the New York Jets also contain a West Side Story allusion? If so, the Jets could be street-gang members instead of airplanes, which could move them to category 4D. There’s no such possibility for the NHL Winnipeg team though.
The Jets and Rockets could raise the question of whether they satisfy my criterion of being things a child might pretend to be in play. I suppose that, in a way, I pretended to be a fighter plane, when as a boy I made the sounds of a diving Hellcat on a strafing run, guns firing, my arms outstretched for wings, but that imaginary plane was just a prop for what I saw myself as—the plane’s pilot. So I still say no to Jets and Rockets, and the criterion was only for being considered, anyway.
The Baltimore Bullets (9A) NBA team of the past, sort of melded the ideas behind the Colt 45s (see below) and the Houston Rockets, but alliteration was surely a factor. Bullets are mere projectiles, however, dependent on being shot from a gun to attain their speed. After the team had been in its new home in Washington DC for a while, it was decided that Washington Bullets was unseemly for the nation’s capital, especially given the city’s high murder rate. So the team namers went for alliteration again and came up with Wizards, an unfortunate name that fits none of my categories, but doesn’t seem worthy of having one all to itself.
Inanimate objects with a local connection of some sort have provided names to the San Antonio Spurs, Ohio State Buckeyes, Houston (formerly) Colt 45s, Toronto Maple Leafs, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, and Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the same way as White Sox identifies a Chicago team by a uniform part, the San Antonio Spurs name might be suitable for a rodeo team of some sort, though it would need to add a distinguishing adjective (Silver Spurs?). But basketball players don’t wear spurs. As a standalone name, Spurs is pretty weak, in my mind. Literally speaking, who wants to be a Spur? It’s like the laughable reference to a Boston player as a Red Sock. The great success of the San Antonio NBA team has made its name seem more plausible than it really is. But at least spurs are concrete, which makes them superior to names that are just abstractions.
An interesting, and at first puzzling, inanimate object name with a local connection belongs to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeye is a tree, or the inedible nut from that tree. Ohio evidently became known as the Buckeye State during the Presidential election of 1840. I can’t help thinking that the choosing of the name Buckeyes was done without much thought as to what a Buckeye really was. They have actually made the sideline cartoon fellow be a personified nut. I guess the Buckeye is in a sense a totem tree, but I think there’s an element of the adjective (as in Buckeye State) turned into noun effect through its use in the plural (like Athletics), which explains the name better, even though I’m leaving it in 9B. Of course, as with any successful team’s name, a Buckeye is by now someone who plays for Ohio State.
The Maple Leafs (why not Leaves?) obviously must come from the Canadian flag, right? Actually the team name came long before the adoption of the current flag. The maple leaf emblem had been on the uniforms of Canadian soldiers in WWI, though, and that is presumably why Maple Leafs was chosen for the team, whose members would also wear the symbol. An argument could be made to put this name in with uniform identifiers (6C). In any case, even as an inanimate object name, Maple Leafs is a great improvement over the team’s previous name—St. Pats—which is even more absurd than Buffalo Bills.
I recall that the Houston MLB team, like the Spurs, was first identified with inanimate objects with a Texas Wild West theme, but in the weapons category. The Houston Colt 45s was a name which could not be sustained.
The Denver Nuggets name probably stands alone in being totally inanimate, inert, inorganic, and not a product of human manufacture. How can fans urge a pile of rocks into action? How could I have forgotten? Writing the phrase “pile of rocks” actually brought to mind another team name that comes pretty close: the Colorado Rockies (referred to above in an introductory paragraph, actually written later). Must be something about Colorado. Blue Jackets is not much of a name, but the other finalist for the Columbus NHL team name was Justice, which would have been much worse.
Inanimate object names that don’t fit well into other categories are Brooklyn Nets and Buffalo Sabres. The NBA Nets (then New York) name was clearly chosen to rhyme with the already existing NFL Jets and MLB Mets, and is pretty meaningless. Yes, I get the basketball net reference, but who wants to be a Net, which just hangs from the rim passively? Sabres are inanimate slashing weapons, perhaps chosen because of a certain resemblance to skate blades.
The terrible sports team name game is easy to play. Choose something inanimate or abstract, preferably with a geographical tie-in and alliterative with the locale. What about New Orleans Mardi Gras or Chicago Mob? Los Angeles Freeways or Newark Needles? Fresno Frenzy or Carolina Calm? Houston Hiphop or Raleigh Rap? Jacksonville Judgment or Tennessee Truth? Seattle Nirvana (trademark issue?), Kansas City Karma, Denver High, or Hollywood Egos? Michigan Mystery or Cincinnati Certainty? Madison Affair or DC Drones? Wouldn’t London Plague be a devastating name for an NFL expansion team? Hawaii Lava or Washington Eruptions? Atlantic City Ocean or Montana Sky? Sad to say, some of those sound like realistic candidates for future team names.
My final post on the topic of sports team names will be devoted to names based on Native American warriors and tribes. There I will present my solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins name.