Session 3


Mark Abley

In the middle of the night almost a century ago, a transatlantic passenger ship sank off the east coast of North America. More than a thousand people lost their lives, including most of the crew and passengers on lower decks. Today the disaster is largely forgotten, for the ship was not Titanic; its name was the Empress of Ireland. Many factors have doubtless contributed to the ship's oblivion, but I'm convinced that one of them was its name. By today's standards, Empress of Ireland manages to sound weird, old-fashioned, and (to lots of people with Irish roots or affiliations) deeply offensive. Titanic, on the other hand, recalls the strength and size of the ancient Titans; the ship's name symbolizes the hubris of its making and throws into stark relief the irony of its fate.

As Ben put it in our last exchange, "We want names to do more than simply identify; we want them to describe as well." That puts a significant onus on the namers. I know we may be at risk here of overplaying the influence of names, but I can't help wondering how many people would have seen the movie Pretty Woman if it had been released under the script's original title: 3000. Robert has pointed out that an act of rebranding can enable his clients to remake not just their name but their whole identity. For when a corporate name becomes an object of derision, that company is in deep trouble. In 1979 a London entrepreneur launched a news magazine under the bombastic name of NOW! The name was promptly ridiculed by others in the media, who substituted the mocking nickname TALBOT! The magazine closed within two years.

The question of names and power, which Frank raised in his last post, is worth considering as well. An ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea suggests some of the implications. To one nation, the body of water to its west is the Sea of Japan. To the other, the same body of water is the East Sea. Both nations have gone to great lengths to persuade the international community of the rightness of their cause. It remains unclear how the dispute will be resolved. Whichever side loses will incur a significant loss of face—that is, a loss of power. It's not just weapons and GDP that determine a nation's power in the world; it's also how that nation is perceived by others.

Frank observed that the institution of slavery gave slave owners the power to rename their captives. I suspect that the in-your-face performing names of so many African-American hip-hop artists has something to do with this. My own surname goes back at least a millennium to a farmer's field in west-central England. Shawn Carter's surname was likely given to one of his ancestors against the man's will. So whereas I can't imagine using any other name than "Abley," it may have been easier for Carter to start calling himself "Jay-Z." Monikers like those of King Oliver, Queen Latifah, and Duke Ellington convey a sense of power that African-Americans have historically been deprived of. The quality of their music, of course, did not depend on the artists' chosen names. But the names must have added to a feeling of artistic command and control that comes with reinventing oneself.


    Robert Jones

    We've talked about naming (and particularly renaming) as an existential act. Is it also a political act? Is it an expression of power? Clearly the answer is yes.

    On a visit to a museum you can see the power of names at work in various subtle ways. Naming works of art can be an assertion of power, often directed against convention. Even "Untitled" is political: it's a refusal to translate a visual work into a verbal meaning and therefore cede power to language or critical explanation. Philanthropists, meanwhile, get the power of naming rights—a phenomenon more visible in the U.S. than in Britain. I was at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York recently, where everything, even the box office, is named after a donor.

    One power that parents have over their children is naming them—Mark's allusion at the beginning of our discussion to his junior-high school classmate named "Robin Hood" made this very point. Of course teenagers sometimes rebel and vary their name or change it outright. This piece of parent-power was challenged in 2008 in New Zealand, when a judge ordered a couple to change their daughter's name from "Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii" to something more conventional and therefore less disabling for the child.

    Naming places is overtly political. Mark talks about the Sea of Japan, one of hundreds of examples of disputed names around the world. With increasing urbanization, we see this phenomenon a lot in city naming. Calling "Bombay" "Mumbai," for example, is an anticolonialist political act, even if a lot of Mumbai residents still call it "Bombay."

    And the naming of products, services, and companies has political dimensions too. Branding is essentially about power, an assertion of ownership; the original brands were, of course, the burned-on marks that signified ownership of cattle. So it's not surprising that the naming of brands is political. There's the internal politics of affiliation: there's almost always a battle to get a new name agreed on, and often factions form themselves around different candidate names. And there's the external politics of influence: a commercial name is designed to influence people to think, feel and act a certain way.

    What interests me most through all this is the battle between convention and nonconformity. Names usually follow the conventions, because that's how to be familiar, to be easy to accept, to be a part of society: ask Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii. Yet sometimes to make a difference they have to be different in form. That's what we've tried to do over the years with company names like 3, Oi, or E.ON. And then these innovations quickly become familiar and normal too—within months, they join the world of convention. For me perhaps this is the final paradox of naming.


      Frank Nuessel

      The very designation of this Forum, "The Name Game," raises a central question about whether or not titles are, in fact, names. Indeed, they function as proper names, or proper nouns, because they receive special orthographic treatment (capitalization, italic typeface). Moreover, they differentiate and distinguish creative artifacts for referential purposes. Without them, museum curators, cataloguers, librarians, scholars, and the public would have great difficulty identifying an artist's individual creations.

      Thus titles denote; that is, they signify something specific, a specific artwork. It is worth noting that untitled art causes a referential dilemma for scholars because it lacks the specification required for unique identification. Besides these nominal attributes, titles may also connote, i.e., provide interpretation for an artwork. Likewise, they entice the public by tempting it to want to know more about a specific work. (John Chamberlain's titles, I noted in my first post, tend to embrace these two latter functions in particular.) Literary critics consider titles as a textual microgenre—"titology," or "title science."

      Here, if I may, I'd like to introduce just a little semiotic theory. The famous linguist and literary critic Roman Jakobson described the factors involved in what he termed a speech event as follows: an addresser and addressee mediated by context, message, contact, and code. Without going into detail, this framework is useful to have at hand when thinking about questions like those of names and titles.

      The titling of a work of art is an indirect communicative speech event that transmits a delayed message to an anonymous public. A title finds its genesis in the mind of the artist, is translated into a verbal entity, and is ultimately received by strangers, who may or may not endow the entity with the same, or even similar, meaning as its creator. In this sense, the title for a piece of artwork is a semiotic sign. The classic definition of a sign is simple: something that stands to someone for something. Can a title function as a unique sign between originator and recipient? Or, as the renowned semiotician Thomas A. Sebeok argued, does one sign lead to an unrestricted, possibly infinite production of signs?

      The titles of some very well known and much parodied paintings are, in fact, not their original ones. Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (i.e., La Gioconda, designating the wife of Francesco del Giocondo), and James Abbott McNeill Whistler's Whistler's Mother (i.e., Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1) are two of the most prominent examples. These title changes raise questions about the effect of titles on the interpretation of the works themselves, since their popular designations are distinct from their original significations, and their subsequent ones. Titles do matter, and they influence the meaning of a work in subtle and consequential ways.


        Ben Zimmer

        Mark makes a timely point, so soon after the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, about how the name of the ship has resonated over the years and has added to its tragic mystique. But the hubristic irony of the name is only obvious to us in retrospect. As I recently wrote, the name Titanic made perfect sense to the White Star Line at the time, both for its meaning (the ship was the largest in the world) and its sound (previous names for White Star ocean liners included Oceanic, Germanic, Romanic, and Britannic). Now, of course, we hear Titanic and think of pride going before the fall, like the flight of Icarus or the building of the Tower of Babel.

        "Babel," too, is a name shot through with historical reinterpretations. It began a few millennia ago as Babil, origin unknown, but the Akkadians provided a folk etymology for it: bab-ilim, or "the gate of God." In the Hebrew Bible, the name "Babel" was recast in a much more negative light, in keeping with the story of the dispersion of tongues after the tower's fall. Genesis 11:9 reads, "Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth." That's actually a cross-linguistic pun, playing on the similarity of "Babel" to the Hebrew verb balal, "to confuse." The wordplay was lost on later scholars such as Saint Augustine, who took the "confusion" explanation of the name at face value. And for modern English speakers, "Babel" often gets conflated with the onomatopoetic word "babble," fittingly adding yet another layer of miscommunication.

        While we're time-traveling, let me commemorate another momentous year nearly a century ago: 1916. In that year, students of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (who had died a few years earlier) gathered up their notes from his Geneva lectures and published them as the Course in General Linguistics. Now recognized as the wellspring of structural linguistics, the book forcefully argues for the essential arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Names, it would seem, are even more arbitrary than other items in our lexicon.

        Meanwhile, not far away in Zurich, some artists and poets seeking haven from World War I were intent on proving just how arbitrary names could be. Gathering at the Cabaret Voltaire, they came up with a name for their anarchic movement that seemed to mean nothing at all: "Dada." The founding members would later tell many conflicting stories about how the name originated, but one of the most popular tales has them opening a Larousse dictionary to a random page and pointing to a word with a paper knife. That's likely apocryphal: dada, which is French baby talk for "hobbyhorse," was used in the title of the group's literary review, Être sur son dada, or "To ride one's hobbyhorse." Much like the equivalent English expression, the phrase can mean "be obsessed with a particular topic," as the Dadaists clearly were.

        It's been a pleasure obsessing about this particular topic with you all!