What's In a Name?

2 min 30 November 2015

Every day, we make assumptions about the world around us. Many of them are triggered by our senses, but a lot of them come from the words and names we hear and use, usually on an unconscious level. When we see a puppy, we assume that it's soft and safe to touch, based on what our eyes tell us. But how important is the name of a thing? [read more="Read more" less="Read less"] The word puppy gives a certain impression, as does tiger. The two are very different, and don't rely on sight. The name for something evokes an impression without any other input.

Think about when you meet someone for the first time. What do we usually want to know first? Their name. This isn't just instinctive politeness, the name of that person goes a long way to forming your understanding of them - it's what separates a Barry from a Rosa - and the same is true for everything in the world.

We judge movies, books and music based upon their titles, and a good title is often the first step to a successful piece of media - and a bad one the first step to failure. Compare the instant interest generated by a title like "The Martian", an excellent sci-fi film, compared to a far less effective title, "Transmorphers"a shameless rip-off a much better known franchise.

Even though names shape our understanding, they have a caveat: names, as well as all words, (including everything you just read), are entirely human constructs.

They're made up.

They weren't already out there, waiting to be found. Instead, we gradually constructed language as a mere approximation for the untranslatable language of the mind. Both spoken and written language are mere interpretations, constantly being redefined by culture, accents, and the thousands of ever-changing languages being spoken by people around the world - each of these giving unique meanings to the world by the variations between them.

A French and Japanese person might see a biscuit and share their own words for biscuit, but their separate languages give them a unique understanding of the thing they're describing - shaped by the different names they use, meaning they do not understand what a biscuit is in the exact same way.

This means that language and names are completely subjective.

From this, we can say that language does not hold any objective truth - because there is no exact, universal way to describe anything with language alone.

So, while your entire reality is constructed with the words and names that exist in your mind, unique to your use of language - you can choose to reinterpret, ignore, or accept them as you please, because none of it contains objective truth about what is being described. None of it is necessarily correct. It's perhaps not a good idea to reject every single word you know - there lies a shortcut to madness - but it's important to remember that your world is not defined by names, you can use names to define your world.

What's in a name?

Anything you choose!


If you liked this, check out episode 26 the wonderful Deeper Dive series of podcasts by Walker Uhl & Nick Dungey, which can be accessed here: http://www.dungeystate.com/blog/

Or here, for itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/deeper-dive-dsus-podcast/id725224550?mt=2

These guys take this idea to a greater depth, and it is very much worth listening to.


Michel Foucault (1926-1984) did a lot of work on the power of names, much of which is still relevant to modern sociology and philosophy. A good introduction to his thought can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/