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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2002 / 4 Adar, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports

Cars and incantations -- DETROIT'S recent interest in nostalgia isn't limited to retro designs like the Plymouth Prowler and the Chrysler PT Cruiser -- it carries over to naming, as well. Two years ago General Motors successfully revived the Impala name for its full-size Chevrolets, and last month at the Detroit Auto Show the company debuted a new concept convertible that bears the name of the old Chevy Bel Air.

But it's one thing to revive a name and another to revive the context that it lived in. As the linguist Mark Aronoff has pointed out, the Big Three model names of the 1950's and 60's really acquired their meanings from their place on a vast and slowly turning wheel of brands.

Recall how things worked back then, when every American make of car had several distinct models for each of its lines, full-sized, mid-sized, and compact. In 1958, there were three full-sized Chevrolet models, the deluxe Bel Air, the standard Biscayne, and the economy Delray. The Impala was introduced in that year as a special edition of the Bel Air. Then the next year the Impala became a separate model of its own, and the other models were demoted: the Bel Air became the standard model, the Biscayne became the new economy model, and the old economy Delray was dropped. The same process was repeated a few years later when Chevy introduced a new deluxe model called the Caprice and demoted the Impala and Bel Air a notch, eliminating the Biscayne name at the bottom. The cycle was the same at Chrysler and Ford. The Fairlane, the Galaxie, the LTD -- each of them started out as a limited edition deluxe model, then worked its way gradually down the chain to the economy slot.

While it lasted, it was most elaborate and successful experiment ever undertaken in the semantic manipulation of demand. Every few years a new name was introduced, fastened to a rare and desirable object, and then over time the cars it was attached to were made cheaper and more accessible, to the point where anyone could have one.

But it was also probably the most wasteful marketing strategy ever devised. Companies deliberately degraded their established brand names just to increase the demand for new ones, like a builder who lets an apartment complex go to seed so that tenants will want to move into the one he's putting up next door.

What was remarkable was that consumers were willing to buy into the illusions that the system rested on. In fact there was virtually no difference between the models, apart from the options and trim. The main feature that distinguished the deluxe Chevy models from the standard and economy models was that they had three little round tail lights on each side, rather than two, in the same way Buick distinguished its upmarket models by putting an extra porthole on its front fenders. Those were distinctions that the manufacturers tended to maintain even when the rest of the design was radically changed, and they helped preserve the illusion that the Bel Air or the Impala was "the same car" from one year to the next.

But the great wheel of model names could only keep turning so long as the car companies could assume that consumers had nowhere else to go -- that people would be willing to spend their entire lives climbing the ladder of GM brands even as the company kept throwing more grease on the rungs. And by the mid-1970's, consumers were becoming less willing to replace their cars every few years just so they could own the new model, partly because new car prices were rising much more rapidly than the average family income, and partly because the Japanese and Europeans were grabbing large parts of the US market with brand names that kept their lustre over the long haul. By the eighties American car makers were offering only one model per line.

All of that led to changes in the kinds of names that manufacturers were putting on their models. The car names of the 50's and 60's were based on a few unimaginative patterns -- most were taken from the names of exotic destinations, like the Monte Carlo and the Seville; from animals, like the Mustang and Impala; or from vaguely superlative words, like the Regal and the Invicta (does anyone remember the Packard Patrician and the Studebaker Champion?). But then those names didn't have to be evocative: their connotations were inherited from their place in the constellation of brands, and shifted as they were rotated from deluxe to standard to economy.

It was only when the system broke down in the late 70's that car marketers took to using fanciful names, in the fond hope that they could connote the car's character all by themselves. That's when the companies began appropriating random English words or hatching jumbles of nonsense syllables. Inevitably, car names started to sound like the names of other products. A Monte Carlo or Mustang could only be a car. But Prodigy, Protégé, Prizm, Precis, Prius -- those could as easily be digital cameras or office productivity software (actually, Prius sounds more like a treatment for erectile disfunction). And other names sounded like they should be attached to china patterns or cosmetics lines. Korando, Elantra, Vitara, Nubira -- they're words out of some lingua branda of the far future, what we'll all speak when the last common noun has been trademarked.

Among the Big Three, names like these started to become anxious incantations, as if the car makers believed the right string of syllables could somehow conjure a market niche out of nowhere. Long before General Motors announced this year that they were phasing out the Oldsmobile brand, you could tell the division was in trouble just from the desperation of its model names in the late 90's: Alero, Achieva, Bravada, Ciera. It was a sad dotage for the brand that gave us classic model names like the Rocket 88, the Futuramic 98, the Starfire, and the Toronado. Of course there's always the possibility that GM will some day bring back the names of some of those vintage Oldsmobiles, particularly if the nostalgia vogue continues. But it's safe to say we've heard the last of Alero.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


02/01/02: Hacking up our language
01/18/02: Rebirth of the Cool
01/11/02: The Last Post
01/04/02: Literal frustration
12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg