The Name Game: An Online Forum
Last week, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum held an online panel discussion entitled "The Name Game," in conjunction with their exhibition by the sculptor John Chamberlain, who gave his works highly unusual titles. The panel was asked, what makes a "good" name from the perspectives of art, marketing, or linguistics? What functions does a name or title fulfill? Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer took part.
The poet and writer Mark Abley moderated the discussion and opened the first session:
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.
Ben Zimmer responded:
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.
You can read all three sessions of the discussion here, with participation from brand strategist Robert Jones and University of Louisville professor Frank Nuessel. You can also read the transcript of a live chat that Abley and Zimmer held with readers of the online forum.