As the boomer generation begins to fret about aging, many of us seem obsessed with one sign in particular: the blips we sometimes experience in remembering names. Never mind that a lot of us weren’t any good with names even in our teens or 20s — forgetting one now is enough to send you to the brain-imaging lab.
Happily, I can still recall the names of all four Beatles, all four Monkees and at least one member of The Dave Clark Five, which is all anybody ever knew anyway. However, I do have a related concern and would welcome opinions as to whether it could be a precursor to something more serious: I am much better at remembering what things used to be called than what they are called today.
Renaming the Landscape
The office building that looms over Grand Central Terminal in New York City, for instance, will never be anything but The Pan Am Building to me. Doesn’t matter that it’s been The MetLife Building since 1991, the year its ex-namesake airline stopped flying. Doesn’t even matter that the MetLife logo atop the building must be several stories high. Or that the very big logo lights up at night. It’s The Pan Am Building, period.
Similarly, the giant Sears Tower in Chicago is permanently filed under S in my memory, though it’s officially been the Willis Tower since 2009.
It isn’t just skyscrapers, of course.
The TV program now known as the PBS NewsHour will always be The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour or simply MacNeil/Lehrer as far as I’m concerned, although Robert MacNeil left in 1995 and Jim Lehrer doesn’t seem to be around much anymore either.
Frankly, I don’t see why they couldn’t have left the original title alone, as a tribute to the two great journalists and a favor to people like me who are incapable of adapting to a new one anyhow. Plus, maybe they wouldn’t have to fundraise so much if they didn’t keep changing the stationery. The New York Giants have remained the New York Giants after all, even though the team moved to New Jersey way back in 1976.
Which brings me to the Brontosaurus. At least that’s what the big, long-necked dinosaur was commonly called when I was a boy, although it had disappeared from the Earth some years earlier. I went on happily referring to it as such until I had kids. One day, the little know-it-alls informed me that the creature was now called Apatosaurus.
What was that all about? How does something that’s been dead for 100 million years suddenly get a new name? (Apparently scientists decided the Brontosaurus was really just a variety of Apatosaurus — a dinosaur the rest of us had never even heard of.) But here’s the kicker: In 2015, other scientists declared that there was indeed such a thing as a Brontosaurus, so the name is back.
One of these years, my children’s children will come home from school and inform their parents that grandpa knew his dinosaurs after all.
What’s in a Name?
Part of my problem, I admit, might just be contrariness. It’s hard not to be a little contrary in an era when practically every sports arena represents a naming opportunity for any corporate sponsor with enough cash. To update your memory each time a new sign goes up is basically to grant the latest stadium company free advertising space in your head. If these firms want to buy space in my head, I am open to offers. Until then, forget it.
The university I went to has elevated these naming opportunities to an art form. Not long ago, it renamed its College of Arts and Sciences after a generous benefactor. That’s fine as far as it goes, and not surprising given that there’s hardly a squirrel on campus who doesn’t have somebody’s commemorative plaque on him.
But in a masterstroke of evil genius, the university decided to make the new name retroactive. So my class and generations long gone are now graduates of a college that didn’t exist when we went there. I plan to refer to the college by its old name regardless, and in the unlikely event I ever send in a big check, that’s what I’ll write on it. Something tells me it will still get cashed.
But there is one example that really worries me. When you think of the thin, shiny metal that comes on a roll and is useful for all manner of kitchen and outdoor-grilling tasks, what do you call it? For me, the term that inevitably comes to mind is tin foil. This is despite the fact that the product has been made of aluminum, and called by that name, since roughly 1947. The scary thing is, I wasn’t even born in 1947.
Does anybody else have this problem? And, by any chance, can you remember what it’s called?
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