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July 23, 2013

What's in a Name? Not Horned Animals Having Sex in the Streets

Nametag-rutland Would Burlington have become the coolest place on earth if it were named Bummerton? Maybe not. So is an unfortunate handle what's been holding back Rutland?

The lack of a university and a scenic lake probably accounts more for Rutland's rep than does a name with at least a couple of negative connotations. But if a do-over could be arranged, branding specialists would surely recommend calling the city, the town and the county something other than Land of Rut.

As an anonymous chatter pointed out in an online forum in 2010, the name suggests "someplace people are stuck in and can't get out of. Either that, or horned animals having sex in the streets."

There's also the Rutles.

Former Monty Python member Eric Idle created this Beatles parody band for BBC television in the 1970s. He named the group for England's smallest county — a landlocked, nondescript placed viewed by hip Londoners as a sad-arse backwater. Yes, the Rutles came from Rutland.

Jokes about mental depression, badly maintained roads and moose in heat are cracked only by those who "want to see it in a negative way," objects Mike Coppinger, director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership. "I've lived in Rutland all my life, and I've never perceived it like that."

Jim Sabataso, editor of the weekly Rutland Reader, agrees that the label lends itself to "lazy jokes," but he acknowledges that "there's been a history of not loving the name." Residents have occasionally suggested at community meetings that a rebranding might help improve the city's image, Sabataso reports.

A name change isn't likely, however, so some local boosters have adopted the lemon/lemonade strategy of sweetening that which is sour. Rutland musician Rick Redington is generally credited, Sabataso says, with coining the bumper-sticker declaration, "It isn't a rut. It's a deep groove."

And what about RutVegas? Where did that nickname come from?

Coppinger and Sabataso both suggest it's based on the Route 7 strip of gas stations, car lots and fast-food drive-throughs. While it may not match the Las Vegas strip in glitter and glamour, RutVegas does inspire more than its fair share of irony.

Could another sort of strip — frequently performed in Las Vegas — be an inspiration as well? Sabataso notes that a topless club did do business in downtown Rutland at one point in the '90s.

Warning to Burlington snobs: While it's OK for homies to refer to their ’hood as RutVegas, outsiders will court trouble if they're heard using the term, Coppinger and Sabataso advised in separate interviews.

Unlike other places examined in this series, there's no mystery or dispute regarding the origins of Rutland's official name. Jim Davidson, a curator for the Rutland Historical Society, explains that it's derived from Rutland, Mass., the hometown of John Murray, who the first of the proprietors listed on a colonial charter given in 1761.

Murray was no Ethan Allen, by the way. "He was a Tory," Davidson points out. "He was on the wrong side of the American Revolution."

Rutland may have a lot to live down, but things have been looking up for the city that advertises itself as "Vermont's Hometown." With $2.5 million having been invested downtown in the past two years, 90 percent of the first-floor retail space is now occupied, Coppinger reports. Plus, Rutland is developing a regional reputation for fine dining, he says.

Footnote: When my kids were little and we lived in Orwell, they referred to the nearby city as Rutty-tut-tut. Something for Rutlanders to consider if they ever decide to change the name of their fair burg.

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