What’s in a name?

Natasha Moore reflects on how it matters what we name things, and that it especially matters that we name things.

I’ve lost track of what we’re meant to be calling this plague. Early on, coronavirus was default. Then came the more precise COVID-19, which is gradually having its edges rubbed off by use – Covid-19, Covid, covid. Or the ’rona. I open my mouth to reference it, panic, revert to ‘pandemic’ as a catchall.

It matters what we name things. I read once (though I have no idea if it’s true) that storms given female names are sometimes deadlier because people take them less seriously – that a Hurricane Katrina or Cyclone Tracy sounds less threatening (beforehand, that is) than Mitch or Freddy.

It mostly matters, though, that we name things. The poet W. H. Auden, referencing the Genesis creation story, wrote:

‘It is our right and duty, as it was Adam’s, to give names to all things, and to any thing or creature which arouses our affection we desire to give a proper name. Even in the case of generic names only flowers and animals which we can name are quite real to us. As Thoreau said: “With a knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of things.”’

This tracks for me. I’m hopeless with the names of plants, but I’ve noticed that the few tree species I can identify precisely are far more visible to me – they jump out against a background of undifferentiated foliage.

If having a name for something (introversion, PTSD) brings it into focus, words that become unfamiliar on our tongues can represent whole realms of human experience lost to sight or feel. Fortitude (absent the qualifier ‘intestinal’), or succour, or sin, perhaps. Virtue and vocation may be staging a comeback. Can you think of others?