If there's one fact about the names of savings and loan institutions in the Washington area, it's that Permanent isn't permanent although Perpetual may be perpetual.

The name permanence of National Permanent Bank is at stake if its purchase by Citicorp goes into effect despite a rival's threatened legal challenge.

According to the hefty 1930 first volume of "Washington -- Past and Present," three thrift organizations then contained the word "permanent" in their names: Columbia Permanent, Washington Permanent and National Permanent. Two later dropped the word, leaving National alone to this day.

"Permanent," when the thrifts were formed, was clearly intended to reflect a secondary meaning of the word: "Not expected to change in status, condition or place," although its place of business did change over the years. Once there was an oxymoronic sign on National Permanent's door pointing to its temporary location.

"Perpetual," the key word in today's Perpetual Savings Bank, has a similar but not identical subordinate meaning: "Instituted to be in effect or have tenure for an unlimited duration."

Perpetual is in the news because, in a little-noted action, it recently changed the name it had borne with some variants -- Perpetual American Bank -- since a 1980 merger. The name change eliminated the last visual vestige of Washington's second-oldest nominally surviving savings and loan, American Federal, with a heritage dating to 1874.

American was founded as the German American Building & Loan, reflecting the nationality of early investors, and dropped the German name during World War I. Its longtime solid headquarters at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE is now a Perpetual branch.

Ross Towne, Perpetual's president, said the name change was made to produce a shorter name with greater public recognition, and was taken only after an opinion poll that questioned whether "American" should be retained instead of "Perpetual."

"Both names had historic and nostalgic value, but Perpetual had more financial equity value," he said. Another reason is that 20 or more financial institutions around the country carry the name American in their titles, including the First American banks in the Washington area.

There was no nostalgic twinge, either, from William Sinclair, former president of Perpetual American and now president of Washington Federal, who was the last president of American Federal as an independent institution and whose father Richard Sinclair, now 75 and retired, was its chairman for years.

While recalling his years there fondly, William Sinclair said: "I guess I'm not very nostalgic, no romanticist. Business is business."

The oldest thrift in the city remains OBA Federal Savings, formerly the Oriental Building Association, organized in 1861, also by ethnic Germans. Happy Days?

There is a classified advertising category in this newspaper called "Happy Days." Yesterday it contained only one ad, with a caption that seemed 180 degrees off course. Judge for yourself:

HAPPY DAYS

LML -- I hate this diet.

125/LAV