Sunday 10 April 2022

Colonising names

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

In all taxonomies there is a tension between brevity and limpidity.  At one end of the scale you could simply number every object in a class, a compact but unhelpful approach.  At the other end, you could attach a full, descriptive name, which aids understanding but negates classification's purpose, concision.

One problem common to all labelling systems is coping with the addition of new members.  As more and more are added, so the labelling must become more complex to encompass them.  A case in point is the allocation of telephone numbers.  Demand in London became so great that the capital was split into an inner and outer zone, with respective prefixes 071 and 081 replacing the old 01 code.  An alternative would have been to add an extra digit to every telephone number in the country, preserving London's single 01 prefix.  As usual, people have opted for the easier, though less logical, implementation.

The same growth in complexity has occurred with personal names.  Look at any long list of past incumbents in an ancient parish church, and it is striking how the names start off simply, perhaps just a Hugh or a Peter, and gradually blossom into John of Wykeham, before becoming full-blown first names and surnames.  Today we find that process taken even further, with middle names a crucial distinguishing factor in certain circumstances, especially bureaucratic ones.

Our hankering after older, simpler schemes manifests itself in social situations.  If we know someone well enough, we tend to think of them by their first name;  any confusion between similarly-named people is usually resolved by context.  This works well enough for business and casual acquaintances, but with names of our dearly beloved it is not so simple.

The closer we get to someone, the more we imbue their name with our feelings for them.  It is perhaps significant that we address our parents not by name, but call them instead by neutral descriptions - 'mother' and 'father'.  Given the strength of this emotional attachment we would probably find it impossible ever to apply their names to anyone else: in effect, that name would become our personal word for 'mother'.

But we have no such linguistic buffer with friends and lovers.  If we know John very well, or love Jane to madness, our reactions to those with the same name will never again be normal: the burden of the past, called up by that incantatory set of sounds, will obtrude between us and the person.  Similarly, once we have hated a Jim, we will find ourselves uncomfortably constrained in the presence of a new, quite blameless Jim.

It is as if each name can carry only one experience for us: once charged, it is used up, set, a mental landmark we must live with and move around.  The people we know and love circumscribe our future acts and relations: we may rebuff the perfect mate for her wrong name, or find ourselves unable to christen our child as we wish without making him a revenant.  In a world of colonised names, we wander poor and dispossessed.  Perhaps it would be easier if we were called by our telephone numbers.


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