The Name Game: Session 1


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 1


Mark Abley

I’ve often wondered what became of Robin Hood. She was a smart, good-looking, dark-haired girl in my junior high school in Lethbridge, Alberta, with almost everything going for her. The only problem was her name. If my memory can be trusted, every time somebody called her by name, she blushed a deep crimson. What were Mr. and Mrs. Hood thinking about, thirteen years earlier, when they inflicted on their infant daughter the name of a medieval ruffian who had morphed into a cartoon hero? I can’t be sure if their choice had lifelong consequences, but I know it made Robin Hood’s adolescence even tougher to endure than it usually is.

This Forum will be about the power of names, the ways we allow them or ask them to define us, and their vexed relationship with the rest of language as well as the world beyond words. While my three colleagues come from very different backgrounds and perspectives, we all share a passionate interest in issues of language and identity. Together we’ll explore the different functions a name performs: how it can both lead and mislead.

The catalyst for our journey is the sculpture of John Chamberlain, who gave his works puzzling, provocative titles that appear to defy all reason. In a somewhat despairing catalogue essay on Chamberlain’s playful ways with words, the art critic Adrian Kohn laments “the continuing failure of all this language” and concludes that “language cannot keep pace with his objects.” But is that fair? We are meaning-seeking animals, we gain intellectual pleasure from figuring things out, and perhaps Chamberlain took a sly and careful delight in undermining our search. To my mind, the only meaning of titles like NUDEPEARLS ONE or Cone Yak is as identifiers; the meaninglessness of such names forces us to look at his work free of any explanatory screen of words. His metal collages don’t outpace language; they spurn it.

At the same time, Chamberlain had the wit to give his pieces memorable, original names. Does this make them easier for viewers to imagine or remember—not just the words but the works themselves? Many of his contemporaries, like Carl Andre and Donald Judd, preferred names like Equivalent VIII and Outer Piece—not to mention the ever popular Untitled—which don’t stick in the mind with the same intensity as Chamberlain’s Lord Suckfist. Yet does that automatically make Lord Suckfist a better name for a twisted mass of painted steel than Untitled?

“A good name:” it’s worth thinking about what’s implied by that phrase. Artists might have one answer, marketers another, but for many centuries the phrase has also carried a moral implication. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,” the Book of Proverbs tells us, “and loving favour rather than silver and gold.” If we lose our good name, our whole place in the world is at risk. A name serves, in this sense, as the necessary link between identity and reputation, the inner and the outer self. I know myself from the inside, but you can know me only through the intermediary of my name.

And that’s not always easy. Ask Robin Hood.



Robert Jones

Mark’s post talks about “a good name.” I’m a branding consultant, and this phrase struck me at once: it’s a kind of definition of brand. A company’s good name is its reputation—the bunch of ideas it stands for in people’s minds—signalled by a word or phrase, and usually by a logo too.

In one way, it doesn’t matter whether the question of a good name is applied to a work of art, a person, or an organisation or product. Any old name, used with consistency and conviction, would work. If you thought about the literal meaning, you probably wouldn’t buy food called “Birds Eye.” But this particular name is distinctive, memorable and ubiquitous, so it works. Very quickly after they’re launched, most names become meaningless signifiers—empty identifiers, as Mark says. People are interested in the art, the person, the product, not the word.

And yet, in another way, names do matter. No parent could choose a name for their child arbitrarily—we want a name we like. And in art, a title is a kind of interpretation of the work; it needs to be somehow illuminating (or deliberately refuse to be). Similarly, a brand name is a kind of interpretation of a product or company that says something about what the brand owner wants us all to think. In fact, I’ve spent most of this morning thinking of names for a professional-services client (yes, grown-ups do spend their Monday mornings doing this). The right name, or at least a good name, is a big deal.

So, in branding, what is a good name? I learned my lesson in this early in my days at Wolff Olins, almost twenty years ago. We were working for a mobile phone network that used a technology called personal communications networks, or PCN. My favorite option for the name was Pecan—a fun word based on PCN, a name both logical and neat. But our creative director knew we could do better. We could find something less literal, less logical, not denoting but connoting. A name that suggested warmth, optimism, “the world,” as he said, “through the eyes of a seven-year-old child.” That name was Orange. It quickly became one of the most successful names and brands in the history of the telecom business.

So when it comes to naming, I learned not to go for the bleeding obvious (to borrow a phrase from Monty Python) but to look for something oblique, with some mystery, some poetry, maybe even some art.



Frank Nuessel

In his initial post, Mark poses several intriguing questions about John Chamberlain’s use of language in naming his sculptures. Chamberlain’s titles (Latin titulus: “superscription,” “label,” “title”) are simultaneously evocative and provocative on many levels. They recall our delight in verbal humor and word games, for example puns (Whirled Peas i.e. “world peace”), double-entendres (Homer = Greek poet, baseball, a possible sexual reference), and palindromes (Stressed Desserts). Almost certainly this verbal ingenuity derives in part from his year at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he studied with poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. Moreover, Chamberlain’s teasing titles coax readers to participate in these word games and cause them to invoke additional lexico-cultural allusions.

In some ways, Chamberlain’s titles anticipate today’s ubiquitous use of netspeak and text messaging with their terse, clipped language subject to specific constraints on length (140 characters is actually a bit long for an artwork title) with a consequential exploitation of abbreviation, acronyms, and numbers to communicate messages and capital letters to signify emphasis. Likewise, Chamberlain aligns himself with the literary tradition of “eye dialect,” the systematic manipulation of standard orthography to imitate actual sounds of a particular vernacular (Cone Yak = French “cognac”).

To help create his titles, Chamberlain maintained a long running list of words for inspiration; he also would write single words on numerous note cards that he would shuffle and select from. This procedure might appear to be random, capricious, and subjective, and it is true that Chamberlain himself asserted that the words revealed nothing about what they labeled. Nevertheless, his visually kinetic sculptures appear to have some correspondence to his self-proclaimed observations about the pictographic qualities (shapes, profiles, configuration) of letters and words.

The Guggenheim’s catalogue for the exhibition includes a fascinating annotated dictionary of a select number of Chamberlain’s titles. One aspect that unexpectedly stands out is their autobiographical nature. In essence, they recapitulate significant aspects of Chamberlain’s life—names of automobiles and their parts (the quintessential components of his art), his naval experience, places he lived, and friends and acquaintances. Such a procedure might cause the viewer of his sculptures to marvel at such an intensely personal “branding strategy.” While most art historians have situated his work within Abstract Expressionism, the pop-cultural allusions in the names of his works have contributed to his being designated a Pop artist, or something between the two.



Ben Zimmer

Reporter: What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?
George Harrison: Arthur.

—A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Mark aptly portrays the relationship between names and ordinary language (and between names and things in the world) as “vexed.” Certainly, philosophers of language have been puzzling over the conundrum of proper names for centuries.

Here is John Stuart Mill in 1843:

"When we name a child by the name Paul, or a dog by the name Caesar, these names are simply marks used to enable those individuals to be made subjects of discourse. It may be said, indeed, that we must have had some reason for giving them those names rather than others; and that is true; but the name, once given, is independent of the reason. A man may have been named John, because that was the name of his father; a town may have been named Dartmouth, because it is situated at the mouth of the Dart. But . . . if sand should choke up the mouth of the river, or an earthquake change its course, and remove it to a distance from the town, the name of the town would not necessarily be changed."

So calling a man “John” doesn’t describe him in the same way as such words as, say, “American sculptor” or “son of a saloon keeper.” Names work, according to the philosopher John Searle, “not as descriptions, but as pegs on which to hang descriptions.”

If names are nothing but pegs, won’t any peg do? Well, sure, to some extent. There was nothing to stop John Chamberlain from calling a hunk of twisted steel Miss Remember Ford in 1964, just as a Beatle was at liberty to dub his mop top “Arthur” that same year. By giving his works such seemingly arbitrary titles, Chamberlain was foregrounding how names at their most essential level function as mere “identifiers,” as Mark puts it, up to the whim of the namer.

Of course, it’s never quite that simple. Naming—be it naming a baby, a hairstyle, or a piece of art—is ultimately a social act. The bestower of a name, in the baptismal moment, is enmeshed in a web of cultural expectations. The namer can choose to flout those expectations with an unconventional choice, but that act of transgression requires certain conventions of naming in the first place. And even Chamberlain’s most “random” seeming names often had hidden rationales, drawn from his own personal experiences.

What fascinates me most about names is how, like any linguistic artifacts, they can travel from person to person and from place to place, taking on new shades of significance along the way. Even Harrison’s offhand cinematic joke to defuse an annoying reporter’s question had some unintended consequences. The following year, Sybil Burton, newly dumped by her husband Richard for Elizabeth Taylor, used her divorce money to set up a nightclub in New York. Inspired by Harrison’s wit, she called the club “Arthur.” And her house band, the Wild Ones, put out an album called The Arthur Sound.

I don’t know if Chamberlain ever caught the Wild Ones in 1965. He was probably too busy making sculptures named after other bands, like Kinks and Lovin’ Spoonful.