WAS IT THE NAME CHANGE THAT cost Richard J. Ferris his job?

Until early June, Ferris was chairman of something called Allegis Corp., a moniker he chose to fix a name that many thought wasn't broken. Allegis used to be called UAL Inc., from United Airlines.

But people who liked the name United suffered from horse-and-buggy (or at least prop-plane) thinking, said Ferris. Since UAL also owns Hilton International, Westin Hotels & Resorts, and The Hertz Corp., the name was too limiting.

So he erased it, abandoning a name that had sat at the top of the airline's letterhead for 61 years, and paid his ad agency and a New York City consulting firm some $7.5 million to invent and promote Allegis.

Why Allegis -- a combination of two words, allegiant (loyal) and aegis (protection) -- was a better name for a company that protects no one and has professed loyalty to no known entity, we don't know. But it doesn't matter. Within two months of the change, the name Allegis was in disgrace -- and Ferris was gone.

There may be a silver lining, though, in all the clouds that have been darkening the friendly skies of late. Perhaps, tucked away in a closet somewhere, the company will come across a few boxes of its old stationery.

We got to wondering about all this the other day, and the more we pondered, the more it appeared that there might be more to this name-change silliness than a chairman wasting $7 million of his company's money. (How silly is this silliness? In 1987's first six months, more companies fiddled with what they call themselves than in all of 1984. Even Russ Anspach, of big-time "identity consultants" Anspach Grossman Portugal Inc. -- not a fellow you would expect to attach derogatory labels to these events -- has called the trend "epidemic.")

But we don't want to put too fine a point on this. As the following articles will show, a metaphysical interpretation of what the redubbing shell game really means -- moral and social commentary included -- is for others to give. Our mind runs to the practical. What works? What doesn't? And has anybody been able to follow the changes, anyway? (We'll confess that we, at least, had to cheat on the quiz, "The Name Game," on the facing page.)

To the practical minded, two observations loom large: one, these rechristenings are often pretty funny (a characteristic not generally associated with your classic top-notch business decision); and two, in their rush to join the name game, companies both big and small appear to have taken leave not only of their business sense, but of their common sense as well. And so we would like to offer a small cry in the campaign for simple, straightforward thinking.

It's always seemed that the first requirement of starting a business is knowing what business you're in (Peter F. Drucker 101). It's one thing to say you rn a pizza parlor and quite another to say you're in the food-service business.

Having done that, it seems to make sense to let folks know what you do for a living. (Doesn't it?)

If you tell people you run The Merchant of Tennis Inc. (a real store in Los Angeles) or Go Fly A Kite, in East Haddam, Conn., they instantly understand what you do. They also know you approach business with an attitude that they may -- or may not -- find appealing. At least they know this: there are personalities behind these companies. Or as Gertrude Stein might have said, there's a there there.

But when you shake hands with the people who run Primerica, Armtek, or Sequa, will you know what they're up to? Will you care? In all likelihood, you won't. (Though our quiz will tell you, anyway.) The names don't mean anything. And if the name doesn't stand for anything, does the company?

If you look around the marketplace these days, one thing is painfully clear: the mass market is splintering -- has been splintering. The folks who Chevied down to Sears every Saturday and hit the Howard Johnson for ice cream on the way back are harder to come by. The reasons for that vary, but ultimately the reasons don't matter. What matters is that if you're going to attract customers today, you have to stand for something specific. Made-up names don't do that. They should. It's important.