Northwestern, What’s “W” got to do with it?

“Hail to purple/ hail to white/ hail to U Northwestern.”—Northwestern University Alma Mater

University Hall

University Hall at Northwestern University

In the last few decades Northwestern University has established itself as a top Midwestern national university with ultra-competitive undergraduate admissions, excellent graduate programs, a dynasty in women’s lacrosse, and an imperfect but lovable football team that will thrill you, then break your heart.  (Please refer any questions about this to the 2008 Alamo Bowl or 2009 Outback Bowl.)  However, for a university touting a top five graduate business school in the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern has a significant brand identity problem.

For alums like myself, and others intimate with the university, we know that Northwestern University is properly shortened “NU.”  For example, as used in the university’s basic cheer, “Go U! NU!”

Yet, those less familiar with the University, such as sportscasters, student’s family members, and people who think Northwestern is in Seattle, the shortened moniker becomes “NW” or “NWU.”  Who could blame them? “NW” is how Northwest is abbreviated on a compass after all.

NU Press

Northwestern University Press logo. Despite the "NW" logo, we still called it the NU Press.

Admittedly, the use of the “W” has been, at times, embraced by factions of the University itself.  Northwestern’s previous web address had been, but by 2004 that had been phased out for  The Northwestern University Press, where I worked for three years, displays the northwestern quadrant of a compass rose with a bold NW on it for its logo.  I recall a Dillo Day (Northwestern’s spring student festival where thousands of nerdy undergraduates pretend they go to state school for a day) t-shirt circa spring 2004 that said “N-Dub Dillo Day.”  Nevertheless, if you refer to Northwestern as NWU, you have given yourself away as an outsider.

NU Seal

Northwestern University Seal

So here I make a call to action.  Northwestern University, the time has come to either embrace or purge yourselves of that pesky “W.”

While “North” and “West” are tiny four letter words on their own, somehow “Northwestern” becomes too long to display in its entirety in such cases as on sporting scoreboards.  Then, it often becomes “N’Western.” I don’t have a problem with this, as really, what other than “North” does one usually see “N” abbreviate?  This situation seems to argue for clinging to the “W.”

However, since “Northwestern” is a single word, without spaces or dashes, and it is the proper grammatical form of the word if speaking in terms of either direction or the historical region of the American Northwest Territories, whose population the university was founded to serve, the abbreviation stands to remain at simply “N.”  That is until one finds that the charter granted to the school by the Illinois general assembly in 1851 reads “North Western University,” bringing us back to the legitimacy of “NWU.”


NorthWestern seems to be in the archives. Is NWU next?

Still, all of this grammatical and historical analysis doesn’t take into account the current Northwestern iconography consisting of seals, sports logos, and graphic identity pieces.  All of these simply feature a stylized “N,” “NU,” “Northwestern,” or “Northwestern University.”  No such luck “NWU.”

The Northwestern University "N Cat" logo.

So what will it be Northwestern?  Keep the “W” or put the kibosh on it?   I personally argue for reinforcing the NU brand.  It’s already out there, it’s already embedded into the University’s culture, it’s grammatically correct, now all you have to do is get the media to play along.  Nevertheless, I acknowledge the loveliness of the “W” in NWU as well.

What do you think?  What is the proper titling for Northwestern University?  Does having that lingering “W” damage how recognizable the Northwestern brand is?


3 thoughts on “Northwestern, What’s “W” got to do with it?

  1. yay you posted!

    I kind of like NW, just because NU could really be anything – Nebraska University, National University, etc – but at least with NW you would know it’s North-West-something.
    I hate it when ppl call Cornell CU, because it just makes me think of Boulder, haha.

    Actually, I like N-Dub. Or Nor-Dub. Or Nor-Dub-U.

  2. In 2005 when I applied, the website was actually — Northeasterns was Back then, if you typed a schools name into a search engine, and it was incorrect, you received a blank page. From a business standpoint, having being the main (and only) website was pretty bad. Also, some people would write the schools name as North Western University, which would also be incorrect. The University of Pennsylvania has settled on has their website, while Penn state has settled on (so as neither school has to fight over the title of penn). Northeastern, Norwestern International University, Northwestern College, and many other institutions (Southwestern and Casewestern) share similar names as Northwestern. It doesn’t mean the University is not memorable (as the success of any student who goes there speaks volumes for thereselves sans the university), but it means Northwestern has to be careful.

    • Interesting, when I applied to NU in fall of 2003 most of the websites were, but by the time I started there in the fall of 2004, they were almost all and all of the campus e-mail addresses were You must have run into some of the antiquated parts of the website (there were many).

      Even within the Northwestern circuit things can be a bit confusing. With Northwestern College also in the upper- Mid West, and both schools sharing purple as their official color, mix-ups are bound to happen. The summer following my first year I saw a gentleman in a grey “Northwestern Football” t-shirt with purple writing at the store where I was working. I asked him if he went to Northwestern he responded, “Oh, not that one.” Obviously he’d gone to Northwestern College in Minnesota.

      Apparently another college has a stronger claim on the “NWU” moniker. Nebraska Wesleyan University, a United Methodist Church liberal arts college goes by NWU and their mascot is the Prairie Wolves. Thankfully, they do not also wear purple, but rather, gold.

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