What’s in a Name? Why the Pelicans Should Be Known As the ‘Pellies’

This is an important moment in the history of basketball in New Orleans. Its NBA team has tried to accelerate its rebuilding process with two risky moves — dealing two draft picks, including Nerlens Noel, for Jrue Holiday, and tossing more money than a pelican could fit in its bill at Tyreke Evans. It’s also adopted an awesome new nickname/mascot more evocative of the region’s rich history after living too long with a nickname linked to another NBA city.

But there’s one task left: picking a nickname for the nickname. The word “pelicans” contains three syllables, meaning a one- or two-syllable version is likely to become the dominant shorthand we use in conversations about the team. It might seem unnecessary to shorten a team’s name by one measly syllable, but we do it all the time. There are 30 franchises across the four major U.S. team sports with nicknames at least three syllables long, and for almost all of them, a one- or two-syllable nickname has at least an equal usage rate to the team’s actual nickname.

The possible exceptions, if you’re curious:

Golden State Warriors

The most popular shorthand of which I’m aware is “Dubs,” a play on the first letter (“W”) in “warriors,” a word that does not contain a convenient abbreviated version of itself. Golden State fans know the “Dubs” nickname well, but when I’ve used it on Twitter, I’ve been surprised how many fans ask what team I’m talking about.

Carolina Hurricanes

I haven’t followed hockey closely since Lord Byron Dafoe was between the pipes for the Bruins, so I’ve no real clue how people refer to hockey’s trisyllabic teams. The word “hurricane” rolls off the tongue fast enough to almost feel and sound like a two-syllable name, and newspapers seem to prefer the nickname “Canes” — a shortening with a very well-known college legacy from the University of Miami. Katie Baker, our resident hockey guru, informs me “Canes” is in fact quite common.

Columbus Blue Jackets

I have no idea what people call the Blue Jackets. I don’t think I’ve ever had, or even overheard, a single conversation about the Blue Jackets. The typical solution for teams with two-word names, long one-word names that combine two discrete words, or hyphenated names, is to simply use the second word — Blazers, Wolves, Sixers, Niners, Leafs. These examples — some two-syllable, some just one — aren’t of much use in coming up with a brief version of “pelicans” (sorry).

Ms. Baker tells me she’s unaware of any common shorthand for the Blue Jackets. Some might use “CBJ,” she says, and the nickname “Lumbus” apparently became quite popular during their one playoff run in 2008-09 for comedic reasons Katie suggests I should Google.

Montreal Canadiens

Katie assures me we can still call these guys the “Habs,” as we did when we all booed Patrick Roy back when I knew something about hockey.

Phoenix Coyotes

I’m not sure “Coyotes” even needs shortening, since it’s more fun to use the two-syllable version (“KY-OATS”) I imagine cowboys prefer.

Edmonton Oilers

There appears to be something of a debate about whether the word “oil” contains one or two syllables, and thus whether “Oilers” falls into the three-syllable category. But neither I nor Katie is aware of any shorter nickname for a team I wasn’t sure still existed until I looked it up.

And that’s it. We’ve come to know every other three-syllable team by a shorter nickname. Some of those teams have even built those nicknames into their intellectual property and on-field uniforms, including the A’s, Sixers, Knicks, Bucs (the NFL version), and many others.

So even though there’s a chance “Pelicans” sticks, as the long-ish “Warriors” appears to have done in the Bay, we need to be prepared with a pleasing abbreviated version. I’ve been pushing “Pellies” since the name change, and I’m not even sure why. I would say the response from New Orleans fans has been about 40 percent pro-Pellies and 60 percent anti-Pellies, with the “anti” group spitting a far more vociferous tone, as “anti” groups tend to do in this blessed/terrible Internet age. Some of the critics have suggested that “Pellies” is somehow childish or even feminine, and the “-ies” suffix does contain a hint of the diminutive:

I certainly know Chicago fans who refuse to use the “Cubbies” nickname, arguing it bolsters the “lovable losers” label the franchise should work to shed.

But I don’t really agree with the idea that “Pellies” signals some sort of weakness. I don’t get the same vibe from “Phillies,” and the lilting nature of the diminutive “-ies” sound implies familiarity and affection to me — not a lack of strength. And on a personal note, when I visited St. John on a vacation two winters ago, I tried to convince pelicans on the beach that it was safe to approach me by calling out, “Here, Pelly! Here, Pelly!” It just came out naturally. (I have issues, clearly.)

Jarko

So if Grantland is going to go with something other than Pellies, a candidate must emerge and dethrone it in a nickname competition. Here are some of the popular nominees I’ve seen on Twitter, in blog posts, and elsewhere.

’Cans

I’m sorry, but no. I get the appeal, believe me. The word “cans” is right in the word “pelicans,” and brings a double entendre that would make Adam Sandler laugh and gain a new relevance every Mardi Gras. But we can’t lean upon a term some conservative producers might think of as inappropriate, and if we leave that more fun interpretation aside, we’re left with an image of a ratty old beer can. Any popularization of the “Cans” nickname will also lead to endless “Pelican’t” puns when the team struggles, and we, as a planet, can do better than that.

Pecans/P’Cans/P-Cans/Pee-Cans

Candy-coated pecans are a popular sort of praline, a treat with a long tradition in and around New Orleans. But a pecan is a nut. We cannot come to know a collection of the world’s most talented athletes by referring to them, collectively, as a bunch of tiny nuts. The NBA isn’t short on ridiculous official nicknames — Magic, Thunder, Jazz, Spurs, Heat, Lakers, Pistons, and many others are weird and/or nonsensical if you really start to think about them, but none are as simultaneously nonthreatening and banal as a bunch of freaking nuts.

NOPE/NoPe

This works better in writing than it does verbally. Scoreboard operators with limited space often used “NOH” (Basketball-Reference does as well) to abbreviate the Hornets, and I suspect we’ll see “NOP” on those same scoreboards and along television crawls. But I can’t picture a SportsCenter anchor saying, “Anthony Davis and the rest of NOPE took on the Blazers tonight; let’s go to the highlights!”

The P’s

Innuendo aside, this isn’t terrible. Fans in Boston know the Bruins and Celtics as the “B’s” and “C’s,” respectively, Seattle has the “M’s,” and Oakland the “A’s.” Even “Dubs” is a version of this trope. But with a word and image as rich as “pelicans,” we can do better.

The Birds

The NBA has only one other bird mascot, and let’s just say the Hawks aren’t popular enough to stop New Orleans from immediately becoming known as “the Birds” if the franchise wishes to co-opt the name. But teams in other sports, especially the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Cardinals, already own the “birds” lingo, and it’s not all that evocative, anyway.

The Pelts

This is skin, hair, or fur. Let’s move on.

The Flock

Now we’re getting somewhere. Flocks are vaguely threatening, and they move in unison within set patterns, not unlike an NBA team fanning out in fast-break formation (leader in the center, teammates filling the wings). A number of readers pointed out that a group of pelicans is actually known as a “squadron” (among other names, including “pod” and “scoop”), and while that appears to be true, experts still apply the term “flock” to a collective of pelicans. Its closest cousin in team nicknames would probably be “the Tribe” for the Cleveland Indians.

And yet … I think Pellies is better, and that we have a couple of superior suggestions to come. The singular nature of “the flock” doesn’t seem ideal for the purpose of nicknaming a group of humans, even though the word is designed precisely to cover a group of birds. This might actually work better as a designated section of rowdy fans, akin to the Dawg Pound, Squad Six, and other such gimmickry. “Another Holiday-to-Davis alley-oop! The Flock is going crazy!!!!!”

The Long Beaks/Beaks/Bills/Long Bills

(I can’t find tweets suggesting Long Bills and Long Beaks, but several folks did.)

Hmm … The beak is the pelican’s most distinctive feature, and it’s pretty fucking cool. It can scoop and hold an entire fish in that thing, and the brown pelican uses its beak almost as a weapon when it flies in the air, spots a fish, and shifts into a downward dive-bomb until its beak plunges below the surface of the water.

The Pelicans will have failed as a franchise if they don’t incorporate this action into either a video montage or some in-arena mascot chicanery — preferably a skit in which the team’s mascot (INFLATABLE! or otherwise) bungees into a pool placed at center court and emerges with a stuffed animal of the opposing mascot in its mouth.

“The Long Beaks/Long Bills” has an old-timey feel, like Redlegs or Red Stockings. But a beak is just an inanimate body part — a fancy bird nose, basically — and it feels incomplete to refer to 15 humans as a bunch of noses. I could live with this, though. It’s creative and catchy.

Oh: “Bills” on its own is out; we’ve already got a “Bills,” in Buffalo/Toronto.

The Pels

This is by far the most likely winner of this competition, over Pellies and everything else. For one, the organization is pushing it, though I couldn’t give a whit about what the franchise wants us to call the team. But “Pels” has also been the most popular suggestion among fans and Twitter people, by a considerable margin. And it has an obvious draw. It’s only one syllable, making it a more effective time-saver than Pellies. And it constitutes the first three letters of the full “pelicans” nickname, a clear linkage that also holds some visual appeal. You could chant “Let’s Go Pels” with an easy three-syllable rhythm, and the arena entertainment team could play around with “Hells Pels” as a modified AC/DC song. This young roster, full of speed, should play at a Pel-mell pace. We can do a lot with “Pels.”

It just feels a little … sterile. Lifeless. Boring. That’s in part because it falls in line with how we typically shorten three-syllable names that don’t contain within themselves any more easily identifiable organic shortener:

• Mavericks = Mavs

• Cavaliers = Cavs (Note: This one, like “Canes,” has a college doppelgänger via the University of Virginia, which — sorry, John Hollinger — I refuse to refer to as “The University.” Ugh, the arrogance.)

• Nationals = Nats

• Senators = Sens

• Patriots = Pats (Note: This one at least is a person’s name, giving us Pat the Patriot.)

• Jaguars = Jags

• Cardinals = Cards

• Capitals = Caps

• Predators = Preds

• Avalanche = Avs

This is the “A-Rod” of team nicknames — the shortened format we use when we are too lazy and uncreative to do anything else. This, I think, is why I ultimately settled upon Pellies over Pels. It’s just got more verve, more spirit. It seems likely “Pels” will win out, and it’s more than solid. I can live with it. But I’ve yet to be swayed that it’s better than “Pellies.” I may die on this sword.

Filed Under: NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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