The Power of Name: The Real Meaning of a Bengal

Jamie Sabau

There are always layers of meaning in every name, but the Bengals have whole history books about theirs.

There was once a man who loved football. He lived in northern Ohio with his family and soon became a legendary coach there. The problem with him, and like many other great men, was that he figured he knew best, but a richer and more powerful man fired him and took away the thing he loved.

Our man was not a timid soul-probably wasn't even a nice guy-and he would not go quietly into that gentle night, so he strengthened behind the curtains of unemployment and negotiated shrewdly enough to obtain his own team; a new team; a team he would go on to name: The Bengals.

The man is of course Paul Brown, a name we still say in Cincinnati every Sunday in the fall and winter. It is believed that he named his team the Bengals to pay tribute to history. Another Cincinnati Bengals played in the fledgling football leagues of the late 1930s and early 40s and Paul certainly had his finger on the pulse of pro football then. He also seemed determined to match the uniforms of his former team, the Cleveland Browns, so a tiger of some kind makes an easier leap in that direction. Some may think such a jealous move would be too petty for a person like Paul Brown, but he was often known to be, if not petty, transparently vindictive. Then there is also the claim of the local zoo, keeping some Bengal tigers there-which they still do-but how much of a zoo eunthusiast (zoonthusiast?) Mr. Brown was is not well known.

What he probably didn't realize was exactly how much tribute he was paying to history. The word Bengal is an ancient one. The etymology is unknown. It has been spoken for over 3,000 years and has had many variations from Bongo to Vanga. Vanga is the name of a people that dwelt in the mountainous regions of northeast India and western Bangladesh and were originally a separate race from the Indo-Aryans of the West. The Vanga traded well with neighboring nations and grew strong enough to rid off Alexander the Great at one point. It was an old province of Hindustan, now India, and is still called Bengal today, only it's West Bengal now. It's home to 91 million people, probably almost all of whom aren't aware that an American football team is named after their region.

I don't think anyone in the Bengals organization or in Cincinnati or possibly the world thinks that Paul Brown named his team after an ancient race of proto-Indians, and not even the place that has a famous bay named after it. It was the animal, the tiger, where his real tribute lay.

It too is old and majestic. The Panthera tigris arrived in India 12,000 years ago and has been weighed in at over 600 lbs.. There are only 2,500 of these bad boys left and the future looks grim for the species. As noted, Brown was not likely concerned with extinction or zoology, but he liked Tigers because of his old days at Massillon High School who are nicknamed the Tigers. He had to have known how bad ass the animal looks and acts and his imagination didn't need to wander farther than that in the decision, but the fact he chose Bengals and not Tigers seems like an interesting quirk when you think about the history.

Bengal is such an exotic word. This 60's expansion team with it's daring striped helmets and foreign sounding name was somehow matched up with a hard-nosed curmudgeon who owned a sports team in a humble Appalachian river valley. How do thousands of years pass with this name ringing out time and again in a whole continent's history while we on the other side of the Earth only know it as football related?

I'll tell you why. Because we are like that man from northern Ohio who loved football and not much else. We too keep our fingers firmly on the pulse of the sport and we know everything there is about our team which are the Bengals. And now you know one more thing which is the origin of the word itself and not many others can claim that. Thanks for tuning in.


Mojokong-the celebrator of roots in all fashions.

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