Earlier this week, Federated Department Stores (NYSE:FD) announced that it will be changing its ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange. Come June, the retailing giant, which operates Macy's stores across the country, will trade under the single letter M. The switch reflects a planned name change for the company as a whole, to highlight the Macy's brand.

This may not seem like big news, but in the arcane world of stock-exchange ticker symbols, it's huge. As Foolish pundits previously pointed out, Wall Street's prevailing urban legend had the NYSE reserving M in hopes of luring Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) away from the Nasdaq.

Tarnished glamour
At one point, companies with single-letter ticker symbols represented the cream of Wall Street's crop. Even now, these 15 companies include no shortage of high-profile stocks, including Citicorp, Ford, AT&T, and U.S. Steel. Yet you'll also find several smaller, less familiar companies. Industrial metals manufacturer Barnes Group (NYSE:B) has been listed on the exchange for decades; despite substantial growth over that time, it still sports a market cap of just more than $1 billion. Logistics and fleet leasing specialist Ryder System (NYSE:R) is only a $3 billion company.

Meanwhile, companies that used to hold single-letter tickers have had mixed success. Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD) has emerged from bankruptcy with a vengeance, and its new stock is performing well, but it passed the S symbol over to Sprint Nextel. Similarly, US Airways (formerly under the symbol U) and Woolworth (formerly under the symbol Z) faced their own bankruptcy proceedings, with only the airline emerging intact. On the other hand, Gillette gave up its G symbol in a blaze of glory, when Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) bought the shaving giant in 2005.

Not just for stocks anymore
You can't even count on single-letter tickers being regular stocks. Realty Income, which carries the symbol O, is a real-estate investment trust. Like most REITs, it has done well in recent years, combining rising share prices with a strong dividend.

In the end, of course, ticker symbols have little to do with a business's success. In Macy's case, few would argue that the retailer lacks the appropriate pedigree to take on the coveted single M. And if Bill Gates is disappointed, no one can say he didn't have ample opportunity to grab the ticker long before now.

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation, while AT&T was a former Stock Advisor pick.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger finds the etymology of ticker symbols fascinating, but he doesn't own shares of any of the companies in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is always glamorous.