What's In A Name? Apparently, Forgiveness For Bertha

Jan 23, 2014

She loves dirt and hates sunlight. Seattle Magazine named her one of 2013’s most influential people, except she’s not really a person. She’s Bertha, the world’s biggest tunnel boring machine, charged with digging out the replacement path for the Alaskan Way Viaduct under Seattle.

Her profile on the Washington State Department of Transportation site lists her occupation as a tunneling specialist, but right now she’s stuck and has been since December 6. In light of her current predicament, the decision to name the machine, and thus humanize it, could be a shrewd move.

“It allows for some forgiveness,” said Cal McAllister of the marketing agency Wexley School for Girls. “Big companies do it all the time: Microsoft, Walmart. If you become more of a person, you’re allowed to make mistakes.”

McAllister said that you’re more likely to pull for a person ("Come on Bertha, you can dig out of this!") than for a machine ("We paid a lot of money for that robot, how come it doesn’t work?").

Her name was chosen by a committee after receiving entries in a naming contest. There were a few rules in the contest: The name had to have Seattle significance, it couldn’t be after a living person, and most importantly, it had to be a female name.

McAllister likened this to naming ships with female names because it would conjure up nurturing images. “If it were a guy, the public might not be quite so forgiving. It’s a sexist business, naming,” he said.

The name, Bertha, was also useful because it already has a lot of brand behind it according to McAllister. Callaway Golf Company has a club named Bertha and the WWI howitzer gun was nicknamed “Big Bertha.” WSDOT didn’t have to put a lot of effort into explaining the name, though technically the machine is named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle’s first female mayor.

“Bertha as a word, as a name, is big and massive and has strength. And I think we’re forgiving Bertha right now for not moving knowing that she’s going to eventually kick back in, just based on namesake,” McAllister said.

The question is, are we being manipulated by Bertha? “As far as I’m concerned, yes, albeit playfully,” was McAllister’s answer. “To humanize something provides a safety net; it buys a little bit of time. If it was a robot, and it was a more aggressive or harsh name with more expectations of accomplishment, I think people would be a little more frustrated.”

Names that didn’t make the cut include Bambi, Aurora Boring Alice and Dig Foot.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.