“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Those are of course Juliet’s lines in Act II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If only Romeo’s last name were something other than Montague, there would be no obstacle between them.
Juliet sees words (including names) as mere labels, attached for the sake of convenience. But like the Capulet’s and Montague’s, contemporary thinkers would beg to differ. Words frame our ideas and direct the way we think about them. People who study language and cognition know that thinking is shaped and directed by the words we hear and repeatedly use.
A proverb attributed to Confucius states that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. But how is one to do that? What, for example, would the sage call today’s political wrangling – fidelity to principle or stubborn pride? Yes, the odor of the rose remains the same, whatever we call it, but so does that of cow manure. We must call it something and, as soon as we do, the words we use begin to shape the way we think about it.
Consider MSNBC and Fox News, for example. Were someone to conduct an analysis of word usage on their shows, particularly in regards to nomenclature, it would demonstrate the power of language to shape thought. Followers of these competitors frame the issues of the day in distinctly dissimilar, and sometimes irreconcilable, ways because of the power of words.
The ancient world was well aware of the power of naming things and people. To name something was, in some sense, to exercise authority over it. Any astute viewer of the news media will know this truth has not been lost on moderns.
A clear example of the power of words can be found in the social war triggered by Roe v. Wade. One of the critical battles waged has been over terminology. People who favor comprehensive abortion rights routinely refer to themselves as pro-choice, while those opposing them refer to them pro-abortion, or something yet more inflammatory. Both sides understand the power of language to influence thought.
Another idea from the ancient world is that knowing the true name (as in the Confucian proverb) of a person or thing gives one power over that person or thing. Many scholars believe this is the reason that biblical Jacob demanded to know the name of his opponent, who resolutely refused to give it, in the famous wrestling match of Genesis 32.
That same story also illustrates the intrinsic power of assigning names to people. Though Jacob’s opponent withholds his own name, he gives to Jacob a new one: Israel. In so doing, the man whose name meant something like “conniver” received a new identity and a new way of thinking about himself.
The power of naming was uniquely displayed in Hindu law, which required Dalits (“Untouchables”) to be given one name, which had to be pejorative. So little babies were given names like “Dung” or “Ugly.” Someone called “Dung” all his life has been conditioned to think himself incapable of challenging the cruel and unjust social structures that demean his people.
A more encouraging example of the power of naming is found in the Christian scriptures. There it is said that the Lord will give a new name to all who overcome. George Macdonald reflects on this idea: “The giving of … the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man … The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it.”
“Who can give a man this, his own name?” Macdonald asks, and then answers, “God alone. For no one but God sees what the man is.”
A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it’s different for people. A person has a true name, which is an invitation to vast and rich possibilities, an invitation to become all that one could ever hope to be.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/29/2015
BTW – I would love to see an enterprising grad student take on the challenge of conducting an analysis of language, particularly that of nomenclature, in regards to the respective news outlets mentioned above. Perhaps it could serve as a dissertation in philosophy or political science. Let me know if you take on the challenge.