Worlds Within Words

My sisters and I are always naming things. I think it started with one of Katrina's first cars, which went by the glorious moniker of "The Weedwhacker." This was quite early in my life, but I believe it was possibly a reference to the amount of time it spent knocking over weeds when it was parked at the side of the road (it's totally possible that my childish logic invented this explanation and I never had the motivation to question it).*

Subsequent cars had to be named, of course, as did computers, appliances, and Christmas trees. So too were some locations (my current apartment is The Cat Cave) and obviously pets.

It's a bit of a weird compulsion, really, but it also makes a lot of sense. John Locke's work on the philosophy of language is fairly brief, as far as I know, but what he begins from the problem of general terms for particular things. To summarize, every thing that exists in the world has a unique existence. It is the only one of itself, even if it does happen to manifest qualities of a particular type of thing. However, we don't need unique names for all of these unique things, and indeed, we don't want them, because that would result in a hopeless proliferation of words and the utter confusion of having to always be learning new terms.

Instead (and here I depart a bit from Locke), we give names to those particular things that we either need to refer to specifically--such as a horse or a person--or that exist for us in a particular way. 

I deliberately worded that last bit somewhat awkwardly because I wanted to highlight something that I've referred to obliquely before. I think that there are two kinds of existence, one subjective, the other objective. I exist, this is an objective fact--Cartesian doubts withheld for the present moment. But I also exist for certain people (including myself!) in a very particular way. In a sense, I have multiple selves, one for every conception of me that has been formed by anyone who has ever met me. Arguably, my self-conception has the greatest authority, but I can be mistaken, as when I feel the encroaching doubts of imposter syndrome or if I had body image-related issues.

I think that we use particular names for things when our subjective conception of their existence is strong enough that we begin to endow them with strong and distinctive characteristics. And so often the names we choose are meant to be expressive of those characteristics--see again, the Weedwhacker and the Cat Cave.

I especially love these storytelling names. Sometimes they're buried under hundreds of years of lazy pronunciation, as with so many English places (something Tolkien plays off of in Farmer Giles of Ham, if I recall correctly). Sometimes they're in other languages, especially Native American ones here in the US. And sometimes we've simply lost the rich diversity of terms, such as "Maplehurst," where "hirst" is a German word for a hill. Suddenly the name expresses the place in a way that it didn't before I held the etymological key. 

And perhaps I should add too, that it is not simply that we name what we love. Sometimes, I think, we also name what we do not know, because we desire I make it familiar to us. A name is a shibboleth, opening a door to the possibility of connection, relationship, and belonging. 

So yes, it's a little strange that I name Christmas trees, especially because I am keenly aware of the brevity of their life (death, really) coinciding with mine, but at the same time, why not? They will indeed share my life and impart something of beauty to it, for however short a time. That is something to honor, and I will honor it with a name, a story, and a slightly self-mocking laugh.

*Since the publication of this post, Katrina has informed me that the name came from the car's lack of muffler and the accompanying horrible weed whacker-like sound it made. I think my version was much more childishly poetic, but beauty defers to truth in this instance.

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