Blog Excerpts

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.

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.

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.

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Comments from our users:

Friday May 4th 2012, 6:08 AM
Comment by: mare4short (Fresno, CA)
Thinking re Names as Words
1. Human-made sounds in air; carved in stone; put on 'paper', etc.
2. People's choices to keep forever; change at will.
3. Make "laws" about.
4. Laugh at; kill because of; praise for; "believe in"; die for; sell.
5. Changing female birth-name at marriage causes [record-keeping] troubles.
6. (Your ideas --)
Even with a name like Mary Margaret Fuller, I counted five in US alone (on one list); therefor, added suffixes representing educational achievements. That action did not help my individuality remain real. Thus, "mare4short" became my "nick name" -- a nom de plume?
Friday May 4th 2012, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
I am annoyed that none of you grasp the fundamental metaphysical forces that operate behind every naming event. Take "Visual Thesaurus" for example. Any student who successfully completes Metaphysics 1.01 would see that the enterprise represents a "5" personality, a "4" motivation, and a "9" character, with a Karma of 6 & 7. The "6" Karma evidences a lack of intrinsic service-orientation, it's more about the money. The "7" Karma similarly evidences a lack of sophistication and elegence - more like trench warfare than polite intercourse. The "5" personality manifests in the projection of "opportunism" at every turn; the "4" motivation shows that every task is difficult, often tiring, and the upside is seen as a long, gradual struggle. The "9" character reflects overall balance and completion of an important life-cycle. The so-called "mere naming" of anyone or anything is in fact the translation of celestial forces into the physical real of the 3-dimensional planes.
Friday May 4th 2012, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
Make that, "physical realm" . . .
Friday May 4th 2012, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"--but is "rose" a name, unless it's "Rose"? "Dog" is not a name, right? But "Fido" is a name, and "dog" can be a name if we name our dog "Dog." Like most ideas about words and meaning, naming quickly becomes mysterious, even though we all use names every day without giving the matter a moment's thought.

BTW, I have no idea what Ted G is talking about!!??--though it sounds interesting.
Friday May 4th 2012, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
As above, so below. The Universal Mind plays its hand, which manifests as the material formation of an idea expressed as sounds, to-wit a "name". Everthing going on here on this plane has a higher frequency correspondence beyond our ken. For example, "The Wall Street Journal" is an "8" as you would expect - the energy equivalent of wealth and its accumulation. Every "name" of every "thing", comes to the physical realm as a package deal. The name of this thing being pre-determined. The name is the thing. There are no exceptions. They are concordant to each other.
Friday May 4th 2012, 5:20 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
A name, to me, is a point of reference. I feel they work well enough as identifiers because there is a limited number of people we can fully know. Each person is associated with a sense of who they are in relation to others with the same name.
Saturday May 5th 2012, 4:50 AM
Comment by: mare4short (Fresno, CA)
Ted's comments require a different source of information: "Karma" -- a word from East India(?) leads to fantasy from a different location/time than English. 'Pre-determined" names require my asking "pre-what?"-- an un-answerable question for me. I recall reading a story about a group of Far Eastern priests who talked about the names for their God. They felt that any name indicating a name of their God was like a perfect cube of marble that had a chip in one corner. Then 99 names were invented to avoid saying "god."

All names of "things, places, and people" are nouns according to my elementary grammar book. My interest lay with the consequences of the words we use to justify certain human behaviors; not their origins.


[PS: an "I" needs to be added to the statement, "--therefore 'I' added initials like 'EdD, PhD,' but those initials also were used by other MMF's.] Unique names are difficult to invent. Languages are constantly changing their word-symbols. MMF (Salt Lake City)

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