Believing in the power of names is a primitive impulse, but one that still holds sway over us. We imagine what we would have been as a Steve instead of a Richard, as Kate instead of Melinda. At times we imagine changing our names and shedding our weaker selves. A foolish notion, soon discarded.
But among CEOs, belief in the magic of names -- the notion that by changing your company's name you can change its perception, perhaps even its future -- is strong as ever. Of late there has been a rage for Latin-sounding things: Woolworth changed its name to
(Latin for hunter), Bell Atlantic is now
, truth), Generale des Eaux switched to
, living), and when Guinness got together with Grand Metropolitan they went with
Not wanting to miss out on this revival of classical education, the management at
, the big tobacco, beer and chips concern, has found a word that sums up its core values. Improbably, the word is Altria.
The name, says the company, derives from
(meaning both high and deep), reflecting "the corporation's desire for its family of companies to always 'reach higher' in striving to achieve greater financial strength and growth through operational excellence, consumer brand expertise and a growing understanding of corporate responsibility." (No word on whether the company will keep the well-known MO stock ticker or change that to something more high-minded.)
That's some pretty stirring stuff, and just the kind of things scholars enjoy pondering. "Good to hear from you, and glad to know that your Latin is proving so useful in the real world of white-knuckle, hard-nosed business," writes a reporter's old Latin professor in an email. "Altria, as you know, means nothing, and can't be any derivative of altus (altr- is a nonexistent stem). But it sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And has no suggestion at all of emphysema or lung cancer."
So Many Words!
aerumnosus: wretched altrix: wetnurse balatro: fool vituperabilis: blameworthy voro: to gorge oneself
Another expert was equally star-struck. "It sounds like a fur -- like
nutria," suggests University of Texas classics professor Douglass Parker. In any case, altus isn't the Latin word that pops into his mind. "Altria -- I go to
, meaning other."
One could also decide that altria derives from
, a dispute. There are all those court cases, after all. Or maybe
, a fattened bird.
In any case, "The faith in the power of a name is sort of poignant," says Parker. "Touching."
And finally, suggests Parker, Altria could be the name of an imaginary country (think of
, one's fatherland). The idea does strike a chord.
Altria n. A Narnia, a Laputa, a Shangri-La for the corporate soul. A land of mirrors.