What’s in a name?

One of the themes in my novel involves the process of naming, and it’s a motif that is echoed around in both the overall premise of my story and, more delicately, in the history of one of my main characters.

Mystical, practical and logical associations with the power of naming abound in our cultural history, and it’s been interesting to think about and research. (What does it mean to name something? What are the effects?)

  • The miller’s daughter was powerless to keep her daughter until she learnt Rumpelstiltskin’s name.
  • In the beginning was the Word, through which all was created
  • The boy who cried wolf overuses its name to the extent that the name’s power was lost; and the thing itself (the wolf) gained power over the village and its sheep
  • In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve named the animals as a process of dominion over them (and even by naming a dog, one can exert a small but useful amount of control over it (through training and recognition))
  • Mathematicians, such as Grothendieck, were known for naming new concepts speculatively, before they were fully grasped, thus bringing their discoveries closer than they previously had been. Georg Cantor decided that infinity was an actuality, not just a potentiality, and began to name different types of infinity in order to bring them into mathematical focus, initiating a rushing in to known reality of an array of transfinite numbers

And things have names – are named – to be made sense of. We ask, when meeting, what a person’s name is, because we want a quick label by which to refer to them, in conversation, a way to call for their – and only their – attention, and a thing to which we can forever attach our memories, facts, observations of them. A name makes something an entity, where before it was less so (it creates the thing in the first place) or it brings an already-existing thing into sharper focus. And if you are the one to choose a name for something – well, then you have real power. Let there be light (the light was named before it was created). To speak is to create, but to name is to control, to tame, and to (perhaps) more clearly understand (even without defining).

(Very) loosely related is the ontological argument for the existence of God. Anselm defined God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’, and (roughly; I’m paraphrasing) argued that, since this thing can be made reference to, it must exist (by definition). This line of thinking has arguably absurd consequences (Plantinga talked of extremely idyllic islands which must exist by virtue of their imaginability), but shows, at the very least, the great, (un/)tangling power bestowed on thoughts, language and names in our consciousness.

I’m quite interested in who gets more power in the process of naming – the subject doing the naming or the object being named. And how strong is the relationship between existence and acknowledgement/pronouncement through name?

(Illustration of Rumpelstiltskin from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane, first published by Macmillan and Company in 1886.)


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