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Shawn Vestal: Avista, whatever that means, should rename itself something meaningful. How about Washington Water Power?

May 19, 2019

When Scott Morris started working for the utility, it was called Washington Water Power.

What if – upon the occasion of his retirement as head honcho – the utility decided to return to that fine name? The name that is a part of the city skyline? The name that lived for a century in the Northwest?

The name that has an actual, you know, meaning?

We should not hope for this, of course. It’s roughly as likely as Avista deciding to revolutionize executive pay and start compensating bigwigs with sub-million-dollar packages – leading the charge to create a new generation of non-millionaire corporate leaders.

It would be an admirable, honorable move, but Avista is no more likely to take that untraveled road than any other large organization. Continually widening the canyon between queen bee and worker bee is so intrinsic to the hive these days that anything else seems impossible.

And so it is with this wordlike collection of letters, Avista. The utility spent a lot of time and money splashing it all over town and country, based upon presumably expensive advice from “branding experts” about how valuable it is to build a “marketing identity” with unique, wordlike collections of letters. It’s not going away.

But in the 20 years since the utility trashcanned its fine, descriptive, utilitarian, century-old name, Avista has become more familiar without improving a lick, in my mind. Meanwhile, the use of invented words as corporate names has become a plague on the linguistic landscape.

The name switch occurred in 1999, and for the usual range of reasons: The utility was growing and changing, engaged in a wider range of activities than simply water power, and doing so in a greater number of places than just Washington. There was a lot of branding talk about the new name – about creating a “national identity,” about choosing a name that would “endear” the utility to customers, about organizational evolution.

The utility itself, on its website, acknowledges the change was not immediately popular.

“The company admitted that ‘the new name took some getting used to,’ and The Spokesman-Review made fun of it mercilessly, saying that ‘it sounds like a bad Dean Martin hit,’ ” the company history says, citing the words of my friend, the not-remotely-merciless former S-R columnist Jim Kershner.

“Yet the name Avista took hold and before long the only remaining vestige of the old name could be found in lights atop the iconic 1909 Post Street Substation.”

That’s one hell of a vestige remaining. It’s the all-caps, bright-green vestige of the better alternative to a bad decision, floating above the river that originally gave the utility both its water and its power. It’s a steak hovering before us while we eat our wilted salad.

The move away from the concrete is a style of business-world naming that is ubiquitous and ineradicable – verbal bedbugs in the national mattress. There is an entire industry built upon helping companies come up with names, and increasingly they come up with names that, like erectile-dysfunction drugs or car models, seem built of language that didn’t make the cut for the Elvish songs in a Tolkein novel.

Upouria. Finivi. Brillium. These are some of the company names listed on the website of Tungsten Branding, a firm that specializes in naming companies. Tungsten also comes up with other kinds of names, and some very fine ones – such as Bagster, the Dumpster in a Bag – but the invented-word style of name is prominent throughout its client list. Lumagent. Rivion. Wellmara.

Tungsten is no doubt very good at what it does and the companies it names are likely fine, upstanding businesses, firms that do a good job doing whatever it is you can’t tell that they do from their names. As Avista does.

This isn’t about that. It’s about the proliferation of the “Upourian” language in the public sphere. The move away from the descriptive, the historical and the local, to the place-less, the function-less, the history-free. It’s the direction the Inland Northwest Community Foundation – a local charity with a long history of positive work in the community – took when it changed its name to the Innovia Foundation.

In 2015, the New York Times profiled a prominent San Francisco “namer,” Anthony Shore. He’s a linguistics expert who works with companies to develop monikers that will catch on in the public sphere. Many of the names he came up with are notable for their language-like cleverness – their pop! their zing! – and their utter absence of meaning.

Enormo. Spontania. Zact. He also came up with other names, less nonsensy ones. His names are often very good, and when the nonsensy ones catch on, they do become unique identifiers for the companies in question. But for names that don’t become well-known and rise above their meaninglessness, they remain nonsensical and opaque. The search for a unique name – a Cher of a name, a Google of a name – is leading us down a silly path.

When the name Avista entered the local language two decades ago, it was a canary in this particular coal mine. It has aged poorly; imagine it in lights, hovering over the river. We should be thankful that there, at least, its big brother is still in place.