The Name Game: Session 2


Mark Abley

Poet, writer, editor; columnist for the Montreal Gazette


Robert Jones

Brand strategist, Wolff Olins, and professor at University of East Anglia

Frank Nuessel

Professor of Languages and Linguistics and University Scholar at the University of Louisville

Ben Zimmer

Executive producer of the Visual Thesarus and; columnist for the Boston Globe

Session 2


Mark Abley

In our first exchange, we talked mainly about the name-giving power of individuals. Frank, for instance, referred to John Chamberlain's "intensely personal 'branding strategy.'" This power is surely one of the privileges of an artist's vocation. In the arts, names don't have to make logical sense. Artists who are determined and resourceful enough can name a symphony Turangalila or a film Koyaanisqatsi, no matter how other people may initially react. Successful names, as Robert suggested, are often oblique and somewhat mysterious. Of course artists don't have to resort to the Sanskrit or Hopi language to achieve that effect. Just think of some of Eugene O'Neill's great titles: The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Mourning Becomes Electra, Desire Under the Elms . . . .

But names don't exist in a vacuum. And I've been pondering Ben's wise comment that naming is ultimately a social act. In a beautiful little book called The Shaman's Nephew, an Inuit elder named Simon Tookoome says that for his people, "Our name decides our nature. If a child is named after an elder, then it is believed that the nature of that elder enters and shapes the child's character." In Inuit tradition, names often come from dreams. If a child's parents disregard the advice an elder has sent in a dream, "a child may become sick and no-one will be able to find a cure. The parents must learn what the child's proper name should be. Changing the name may bring the child out of the illness."

Old-fashioned superstition? Don't be too hasty. Tookoome was the author's only name until, during his childhood, missionaries arrived in the Arctic. They at once gave the Inuit Christian names—and so he became a Simon. In the priests' eyes, christening brought him out of an old illness: paganism.

I'm convinced that North Americans often have a difficult relationship with the words of those they dispossessed. While the continent is unthinkable without names like Mississippi, Chicago, Ontario, and Utah, these names have been assimilated into daily use—we seldom think about their languages of origin. Proposals for name restoration, on the other hand, tend to make us very uneasy. In 1975, Alaska agreed to rename the continent's highest peak Mount Denali, its name in the language of the Athabaskan people who have lived in the region for many centuries. The change was blocked by an Ohio congressman; his district included the hometown of President McKinley, for whom the mountain remains named.

Sports teams of Miami University of Ohio used to be called the Redskins; since 1997, they've been the RedHawks. But the NFL team based in Washington—owned for decades, until 1969, by a laundry magnate named George Preston Marshall—continues to be known as the Redskins. The team's fight song (written by Marshall's wife) still includes the lines "Braves on the warpath / Fight for old D.C." Under Marshall's ownership, when the Redskins did not have a single African-American player in their lineup, that second line was "Fight for old Dixie." Racist miser though he was, he grasped one thing: the choice of a name can make a sharp political point.



Robert Jones

Mark’s post raises perhaps the most important question in naming: can names change things? Can changing a name also change reality? Did the name Simon make Tookoome a Christian?

There’s a whole thesis to write on artists who’ve changed the names of their works. For example, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices. That original title—much more social-comic, much less apocalyptic—changes the emphasis of the whole piece and would have made millions of readers and scholars think about the poem (and the modernist worldview) in a different way.

I know this a bit from my own experience. As a student anarchist, I briefly adopted the name Ron Brotherhood—it sounded down to earth and fraternalistic. Ron Brotherhood is not the same thing as Robert Jones, and people reacted differently. The name stuck, and some of my university friends still use it.

In branding, changing name is a big deal. We try in our branding work to help clients make radical changes to themselves, and maybe their industry, and maybe (because Wolff Olins is a child of the 1960s) the world too. So: can a change of name help create that change?

When Grand Metropolitan changed its name, with our help, to Diageo, it was changing reality too: from a hotels business to a beverage company. The name change certainly signalled a radical shift, and—because it sounded less corporate, less grand, less urban, more Mediterranean maybe—hinted at the small, everyday, escapist pleasure of an alcoholic drink. And this helped change reality: investors readily invested.

So our view is that the fact of a name change can get people to stop and think again; the content of the name change can give a clue about what to think; and changing what people think can of course change what they do.

Names are powerful totems. Changing them is indeed, as Ben says, a social act and sends a powerful signal to your social group. In fact, it suggests a pretty serious existential act ("I don’t want to be this, I want to be that")—whether an existential act by an anarchist student, by the author of He Do the Police in Different Voices, or by the people who became Diageo.



Ben Zimmer

The Inuit elder who declared that "our name decides our nature" expressed an appealing belief found across many cultures and eras. Nomen est omen, the ancient Romans said. More recently, John Hoyland of The New Scientist has explored the notion of "nominative determinism." Are people somehow attracted to professions that match their names? Does that explain why Margaret Spellings ended up as Secretary of Education, Francine Prose became an essayist, and Usain Bolt became a sprinter? It’s long been a popular sport collecting such well-suited names: the columnist Franklin P. Adams dubbed them "aptronyms" back in the 1920s. (Others prefer to call them "aptonyms.")

It can be a shock to find an aptronym lurking where you least expect it. You might be able to glean that Google’s PageRank algorithm was named after the company’s co-founder Larry Page, but did you know that the warehouse retail chain Price Club (now part of Costco) was named after the businessman Sol Price? Even more improbably, the Outerbridge Crossing, a bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey, got its name from none other than Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge.

Sometimes our fascination with aptronyms goes too far, and we confuse correlation with causation. There really was an English plumber in the nineteenth century named Thomas Crapper, though he didn’t invent the flush toilet as commonly believed, and he certainly didn’t give rise to the word crapper as a slang term for "toilet" (crap being a scatological term going back to Middle English).

If Mr. Crapper actually had been responsible for the crapper, then that would be an example of an "eponym," or a name that gets detached from its owner and becomes a common word (sometimes blending with other words). The Crapper story is plausible because we’re forming eponyms all the time: recent high-profile examples include Obamacare, Linsanity, and Tebowing. The names behind successful eponyms can end up lost in the mists of time. Who today remembers Henry Shrapnel or Étienne de Silhouette?

The ease with which we create eponyms suggests a kind of permeability along the border between names and the rest of the language. We want names to do more than simply identify; we want them to describe as well. This also helps to explain the popularity of the Crapper story and similar name-related myths, such as the one about prostitutes first being called hookers after the Civil War general Joseph Hooker, who supposedly allowed his troops to have some wild parties. Our impulse to etymologize leads us to look to names as the source of similar-sounding words, though at times it requires concocting just-so stories to explain the connections.

If names can be so readily converted into non-names, and non-names can be so readily misinterpreted as deriving from names, where does that leave us? As Mark succinctly put it earlier, "We are meaning-seeking animals; we gain intellectual pleasure from figuring things out." Looking for hidden meanings in names is indeed a pleasurable pursuit, even when (or especially when) the meanings we uncover are fanciful.



Frank Nuessel

The act of naming represents a display of potentially unlimited power and authority over the named, and the namer is often poised to exert this power in objectionable ways. In the case of groups, the authority to name another individual derives from the assumed and unrestrained prerogative to define the "other."

The history of US slavery provides an egregious example of the symbolic mistreatment of others by naming them. The master-slave relationship allowed whites to label African slaves in a sometimes-mocking fashion (with the name "White," for example)—the ultimate emblematic manifestation of domination of one person over another. Frequently slaves had only given names, and their "surnames" were those of their owner or their occupation (Cotton). This labeling of resulted in profound, more-than-symbolic negative consequences on the recipient, and similar manifestations continue to occur whenever a racial, ethnic, or religious slur is made. In his second post, Mark alludes to the ongoing controversy of objectionable sport team nicknames. While several institutions have abandoned their use of offensive designations, many still employ them because of "tradition" or outright orneriness. This resistance to rational change still appears in the display of the iconic "rebel flag" of the former Confederate States of America, an affront and a threat to African-Americans.

Women too have long faced name-related issues based on the patriarchal nature of our society. Often their given names derive from male names (Carl -> Carla, Paul -> Paula). In the past, the male-centric naming system became more pronounced when women married. For a long time, they were required to change their name to that of their spouse. Birth-name trailblazer and suffragist Lucy Stone (1818–93) fought valiantly to retain her maiden name after marriage. Her resistance to this custom resulted in the creation of the Lucy Stone League in 1921, an organization devoted to the retention of a woman’s birth name after marriage. More recently, marital name traditions have changed, with multiple possibilities becoming available, ranging from birth-name retention, assumption of the spouse’s surname, hyphenation, amalgamation of the two surnames, and more.

Certain performative utterances in specific sanctioned situations may effect the change of a name, e.g., the act of christening, officially sanctioned marital vows performed by a religious figure, a judge’s decree to authorize a name change, legal agreements to establish and protect trademarks and service marks. These institutional actions possess real power. Even a physician’s diagnosis of a disease is deterministic because the patient often loses personal identity and is transformed into the disease label itself ("alcoholic," "schizophrenic").



Heru Lutalo wrote :

Very interesting article, in many African culture it is believe that name have unique energy that influences those that carry it. Therefore that is why they have elaborate naming ceremonies to ensure that each individual receives their proper name. Many Africans have more than one name each name reflect their different roles in society and their level of personal growth.
Heru Lutalo posted on 04/15/14
Stuart wrote :

Your comment on the attitude of North Americans to having geographical features revert to their pre-European names also applies to Anglo New Zealanders. Here, Maori is an official language, but even so, major geographical features when renamed have retained their English names as well, as in Aoraki/Mt. Cook.
Stuart posted on 04/24/12
Marquess wrote :

I found something odd out a few years ago, about my name. My name is Marcus Jones--the anagram of my name is Major Census. Funny how I use it for online gaming, namely Killzone II--which is a first person war simulation.

I'm not sure what people think of the name Marcus, generally they say that I am intelligent, and as for the name, I tend to argue that is from Rome--some say it's from Germany. Who's right?

Funny how we can project a predisposed judgment on someone, just because of their name, or is it connected to our past and our last experiences with someone else with the same name...?

Interesting thought invoking concept, must add.
Marquess posted on 04/24/12
Tom Rinder wrote :

How about an extremely topical question, as May Day and its call for a general strike approaches: do the panelists here have any thoughts about Occupy Wall Street, its relative success through a kind of "branding" and its difficulties in achieving coordinated action under that single moniker? How well can diverse groups be brought into coalition by a single idea, crystallized in a name?
Tom Rinder posted on 04/24/12

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