The Power of Naming. [NAMES: PART 1]

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.–Chinese Proverb

Naming things is a human need. Naming things is how we make sense of the universe. Francis Bacon popularised the saying ‘knowledge is power’ and there is power in naming things.


It’s a common genesis story across a range of different cultures: from the starting primordial animistic belief systems to the monotheistic religions, these start with the power of the language. Many Middle-Eastern cultures, from the Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Akkadian, et al all tell stories the power of the naming. Notable of amongst these was the Egyptian God Ptah was their creator god for whose thoughts as words became real – what he named was created. Later we find the influence of the word in the Bible. In the New Testament, existence starts with the power of the word and naming. It was the naming of the animals in Eden that gave humankind dominion over them. Across many cultures, the first recorded actions within the universe are semiotic in nature.


From a mythic perspective, this quasi-magical power of naming has left its mark through folklore and stories.  Abracadabra, the magical word we are exposed to as children, can be translated from the Aramaic to mean ‘I create what I speak’.  Its not just creation that comes from names, but also control.  Knowing the true name of something gives you power over it. This was the tension of Rumpelstiltskin, where the Miller’s daughter can only escape from captivity if she discovers Rumpelstiltskin name. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, there is power in learning the names of the Elfish swords found in the Troll hoard for Thorin and Gandalf. Later in the tale, Bilbo makes the mistake of letting slip the name of Baggins to Gollum, giving the latter the power to track Bilbo. Wiser at the end, Bilbo hides his name from Smaug the Dragon. Naming was also key part of the magic of Ursula K. Le Guin’s epic Earthsea fantasy series. More recently Patrick Rothfuss’s ‘The Name Of The Wind’ series explores this belief that true magic is in learning the true names of things. All of these tales continue this belief that there is power in knowing names and naming.


From a semiotic perspective, this can be demonstrated across different linguistic traditions. The somewhat controversial SapirWhorf hypothesis is a theory that the structure of language can have a (limited) effect on the perceptions of its speakers and as a result, how they think and understand the world. Do words give us power to understand things? Do different languages make people think about and experience the world in different ways? Anyone that grabs a dictionary and finds a new word can describe and understand the world in a new way. If you look across different languages, you start to see different words with that capture meanings that English doesn’t, e.g. ever think of a great retort or comeback after an event has happened and wish you had said it? The French have a word for it, L’esprit de l’escalier. This was the central focus of a Seinfeld episode called ‘The Comeback’. There appears to be no English word for the action of a delayed comeback.  There are numerous lists on the net of words that English lacks.  Do langauges give the user the ability to name and experience the world in ways that non-speakers can’t?


We continue to actively name the universe. If we look at the Oxford English Dictionary, every year they and other dictionaries, are updating their content with our changing language and passion for naming of things.  The universe is an ever-changing place, so language is evolving to encapsulate these experiences with names.


“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” W.C Fields

How we name ourselves is changing. An increasingly egalitarian society has simplified and dropped many honorifics. It is becoming normal to see hyphenated-surnames of partners or partners maintaining their family names. With so many people online, most are pushed into creating new names to identify themselves. How do we feel about this fragmentation in the names that define us? As Dale Carnegie said,Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language’.  This prelude, sets the discussion for the next part which how names construct who we are.