The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.– Socrates
What’s In A Name?
Answer: a lot. A lot is in a name.
The spoken name is like the tip of an iceberg that floats above the surface, while its unspoken weight is like the heavy base stretching into the depth of the sea. The spoken name is like the leaves of a tree that erects above the ground, while its unspoken volume is like thick roots extending into the width of the land.
“What’s your name?” This is one of the first questions we learn to ask.
“Hi, my name is…” This is one of the first replies we learn to give. While it merely takes seconds to whisper a name, one should not underestimate the importance of naming.
Sometimes, changing one word in the name makes a huge difference. For example, Jonathan Rowson thinks the phrase “climate change” does not highlight the urgency of the problem:
[Climate] “change” is such a neutral term that I now think in terms of climate “collapse“…I think climate “emergency” is too strong; climate “breakdown” makes it sound too mechanical. We are looking at a systemic collapse gradually unfolding in front of us.– Jonathan Rowson on The On Being Project podcast
In contrast, Rowson also gives an example where the naming aptly captures hidden connections:
Ecology and economy, they have the same root of “eco,” which comes down to “home,” — there’s something about the idea of home at the heart of economics that we need to reclaim ownership of, because it’s our home too.– Jonathan Rowson on The On Being Project podcast
What’s In NOT Having A Name?
On the flip side of the coin, not having a name for something also speaks volumes. Apart from the question of good vs. bad names, there is also the divide of having a name vs. lacking one. The lack of a name could lead to a deficit in discourse.
For example, Karim Amer notices we do not have a unified name to describe the “data & mind hack problem in the Internet age” (which, of course, is my poorly-chosen name for the problem):
[W]e became obsessed with trying to look at how we could show how people’s minds have been hacked and changed and how we could change people’s minds, and the vulnerability that’s amongst us. But the problem we faced was one that I think this entire conversation faces…that there’s a deficit of language.– Karim Amer on Recode Decode podcast
What’s In Disagreeing On A Name?
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Hey, don’t get mad – that was just a joke!”
“Are you joking or for real? No, that did not sound like a joke. And it’s not funny at all.”
Does the dialogue above ring a bell? We are all too familiar with are-you-kidding-me moments. And we are not unfamiliar with arguing over what name to put on something – something as trivial as a joke (or not-a-joke).
Don’t underestimate the debate around whether something could be called a joke. This debate is no joking matter, and could get seriously philosophical (or philosophically serious). In The Philosophy of Humor by Great Courses Plus, the professor raises the interesting question of whether humor is subjective or objective:
If there are reasonable arguments that could convince you one way or the other, then what you have is an objective question.
…There must be a fact about whether I was indeed joking, if we were to appeal to that fact…The fact that we are disagreeing over whether it was a joke or not means that humor is an objective matter.– The Philosophy of Humor lecture by Great Courses Plus
To illustrate, there could be no disagreement over whether something was a joke or not, if humor is a subjective matter. Consider this example: it is pointless to argue over whether vanilla ice-cream tastes better than chocolate ice-cream, as taste preference is, after all, entirely subjective. If I like vanilla flavor better, there is no reasonable argument you could make to convince me chocolate flavor tastes better instead.
So yes, disagreeing on a name could lead to disagreeable debates. Pick the name you use wisely.
Names Have Power
Finally, if you still need convincing that names are powerful at this point, let me borrow three much-repeated words from the beloved Harry Potter series, three short words that convey the power of a name without naming it: