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Ma Bell wants a name with a familiar ring to it

A nickname has grown up. A 109-year-old name will die.

American Telephone & Telegraph Co. has asked its shareholders to change the company's name to what nearly everybody knows it as _ AT&T.

If approved at its annual meeting next month, the nation's biggest long distance company will shed a name that was created on March 3, 1885, the 38th birthday of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. (Bell got a patent for the first telephone on March 7, 1876, and transmitted speech three days later. The more famous date was June 2, 1875, when Bell was at one end of the line and his assistant Thomas Watson was at the other and sound was heard over the wire.)

"Despite some feelings of nostalgia, it's appropriate at this time to adopt as the company's official name the brand name by which we are now so widely known," AT&T chairman Robert Allen said in a statement.

The request was in proxy materials sent to shareholders Tuesday.

AT&T was the company's nickname during the decades that Americans called the phone company "the Bell System" and did business with local subsidiaries like Illinois Bell, Northwestern Bell or Mountain Bell.

When the government broke up the phone monopoly in 1984, the company turned AT&T into an official brand name. Its marketing and advertising since, prompted in part by fierce competition, has made AT&T one of the world's best-known brands.

A poll done for the company's ad agency found that 58 percent of the respondents didn't know that AT&T stands for American Telephone & Telegraph.

The company has barely any relation to the telegraph business now and its non-phone businesses, from credit cards to computers, get a lot of attention. The name change idea gained steam as the 10th anniversary of the 1984 breakup came.

"We've been thinking about it for a couple of years as the words "telephone' and "telegraph' became less and less applicable," said Marilyn Laurie, senior vice president of public relations. "The anniversary just seemed the right moment to cut the cord."

The company's research found most people viewed the initials as more contemporary, she said. The company's latest annual report cover, showing a woman on roller blades with a cellular phone, is meant to convey a youthful, non-Ma Bell image.

AT&T's name change comes as most of the regional Bell operating companies have taken steps to raise their own brand awareness. Nynex Corp., serving the Northeast, is eliminating its New York Telephone and New England Telephone subsidiary names. Ameritech Corp. has done the same with Michigan Bell, Indiana Bell and the rest in its Midwest region.

Unlike those companies, AT&T won't have to advertise the name change, repaint trucks or reprint business cards. Its well-known New York Stock Exchange symbol _ T _ will also remain unchanged.

American Telephone & Telegraph Co. was incorporated as a subsidiary of American Bell Telephone Co. to serve New York City.

It later emerged as the umbrella organization for the nation's long-distance network. AT&T remains today the most widely owned company in the world, with more than 3-million shareholders.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.