Naming Names by Janine M. Donoho

The map is not the territory. This quote by scientist-philosopher Alfred Korzybski haunts me. While he intended it to clarify the difference between object and representation, I think it’s bigger than that. For me, it also speaks to authenticity and human displays of facade. That this aspect often comes from imposed societal shame has been known to drive me to distraction.

Now for a confession. As a relatively shy person who functions as an introvert with variable social skills, I appreciate and understand the art of camouflage. That means teasing out the authentic, yet less obvious aspects of self. Joy of joys, it also can equate with glorious attire to complement that facet.

Lynn Margulis ciphered this philosophy into confusing names for actual organisms. Along the lines of ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, can we encapsulate the true nature of anything within a given title? We’re both biologists and writers who crammed nomenclature into our heads. The reasoning? If you’re going to communicate with others, you need to be speaking the same language.

It does seem reasonable to label traits in concrete terms. Many indigenous peoples do so. Of course, given names such as Johnny-sh*ts-while-running, which described a boy with diarrhea, can run afoul of starchy missionaries. For some reason, changing to Johnny-doesn’t-sh*t-while-running failed to help.

While many plants and animals such as Douglas-firs garner names according to who ‘discovers’ them, Interior Salish people called the sugar they harvested from these firs ‘tree-breastmilk’. I tend toward this approach. Also Greek and Latin from which we borrow heavily for scientific classification reflect descriptive specificity. For instance, Leptarrhena pyrolifolia harkens back to Greek leptos for ‘fine’ and arrhen, ‘male’. ‘Pyrola-like leaves’ describe its leathery, bright green foliage. Some call this plant Leatherleaf saxifrage. Beats calling it Fred’s weed, after all.

Connotations and denotations in the English language can help–or play havoc–with naming choices. A few choices fit brilliantly. Could Darth Vader, dark father, be anything other than a villain? Other skillfully tagged scoundrels include Shere Khan, Cruella de Ville, Captain Hook, Sauron, Hannibal Lecter and Voldemort. Oh, and let’s not forget the inimitable Satan. The same can be true for characters of heroic proportions: Luke Skywalker, Gandalf, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Atticus Finch, Emma, Sherlock Holmes, etc.

So while this writer does not mistake moniker for character, I do try to bring my readers into story with a well-chosen term. Even so, when names come to me, they often surprise me with their richness of meaning. In SOUNDINGS for instance, Margo means pearl, Zoe, life, and Morrissey, choice of the sea. Since this novel of my ELEMENTALs ties into water, these labels take on deeper significance. In WILDFIRE Althea, Thea for short, means ‘healer’. This works, too, when she’s confronted with Bramden Youngwolf Hayes, my wounded Fisher King. Then in CALLING DOWN THE WIND, Rue, whose mother regrets her birth, turns the name on its head by becoming an altogether different woman than the label predicts.

So naming matters, even as we remind ourselves not to confuse it with true essence.

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Soundings, Water Elemental

LaunchFebruary 27th, 2015
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