The other N-word

Nantucket is a small island off the southern shore of Cape Cod. It’s where the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship, set out to go whaling. Now it’s a vacation spot, where the population balloons in the summer and shrinks back to village-size every winter. In the grand scheme of no shirt, no shoes, no problem beach vacations, the Nantucket high-season crowd is still tiny compared to the Jersey Shore, the Hamptons or the Outer Banks.

But there is something magical about the island: If you put the word “Nantucket” on a product, people will buy it. In outlet malls across the country, you will find the word “Nantucket” on wicker baskets made in Pakistan, candles made in Mexico, knickknacks, T-shirts, boats, shoes, shovels, soft drinks, potting soil, novels, breakfast cereal, pork sausage, picture frames, cough drops, jeans, flip-flops, motor oil, bagels, boats, belt sanders, beer, flatware, latex paint and a few thousand other things. It seems that as long as an item has the word “Nantucket” on it somewhere, it is sure to fly off the shelf.

I am writing this column in Nantucket. Actually, I’ve never been there. But I’m hoping that just by writing the word, some of its magical selling power will rub off on me and make me wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. And believe me, I have some pretty wild dreams, many of them involving Formula One racing cars, eight-patty cheeseburgers, spectacular blondes and champagne-filled Jacuzzis.

You’d think Nantucket was the Native American word for “buy this and you’ll feel better.” Or as an old boss of mine used to call it, “retail therapy.” What’s truly odd is that the island next door to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, does not have the same cachet, even though it’s the summer home of an uncountable number of celebrities and billionaires. Maybe if it were called Martha Stewart’s Vineyard they’d have better luck.

They may not deserve it, but certain place names have a mystical, emotional power. “Miami Vice” was a huge hit. What if it had been called “Plano Vice”? Would you believe two high-fashion, slang-savvy cops working the mean streets of Plano? Plano may have lots of fashionable flatfoots, but would the rest of the world believe it?

You just knew a Motown record was going to have a lot more grit, a lot more soul, than a single from, say, Sioux Falls.

Buffalo chicken wings: would chicken wings taste the same if they were called Boise wings? What is it about Buffalo that gave someone the idea of using the cheapest part of the chicken to make a popular snack food? What will they think of next? Smoked cow ears? Deep-fried fish heads?

Before Colonel Sanders, fried chicken was not considered to be any better in Kentucky than anywhere else, but now, would you even consider eating Massachusetts Fried Chicken? Can you imagine saying, “I’ll take a bucket of MFC”?

There are other place names that have mystical properties – a New York minute, Boston baked beans, Virginia ham, Nebraska beef, Rocky Mountain oysters – but nothing beats Nantucket. I’m surprised none of the companies that went belly-up in this recession have used the magic word. Would you rather buy a GM, or drive away in the brand new 2010 Nantucket?

“My broker advised me to buy some Nantucket Funds, and my 401(k) doubled in a week.”

“My house was worth next to nothing until the developer changed the name of our subdivision from Rolling Hills to Nantucket Views. Now we’re back to flipping houses every other month.”

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2009, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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