Les noms et les choses: What’s in a Name?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “name” thus:

a designation; a proper noun; a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed.

The modern English word “name” has a long history. The noun “name” has existed across the Indo-European speaking world for millennia, with such attestations in antiquity as Old Frisian nama, Avestan nāman, Sanskrit nāman, Old Icelandic nafn; in the Middle Ages there’s Middle Dutch name, Middle Low German nāme, Old Church Slavonic imę; and in modern times there’s Dutch naam, German Name, Swedish namn, Hindi nām.  Lots of people use the term, in lots of different languages, to convey lots of types of information. It would seem there’s a lot in a name, that “name” is like the ant of the lexical world, able to carry a load fifty times its own weight.

When Juliet Capulet rhetorically poses, then answers, the question—What’s in a name?—Shakespeare had her pronounce something about language use that is at once commonsensically evident and linguistically essential.  Juliet recognizes in poetic terms that the names we use to represent objects do not have an effect on the objects themselves when she laments to Romeo

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;  Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name!  What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title: Romeo, doff thy name;   and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself (Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene II, “Capulet’s Orchard”).

As many times as this question has been asked, it’s been answered, typically in one of two ways: there’s a great deal in a name, or there’s nothing, zilch, nil in a name.  It could be argued that a name actually reveals something about the personality of a person, the utility of a thing, the gravity of a narrative, or perhaps the chronology of an event.  If so, then what is in a name?

Do names and words relate anything meaningful—such as intangible and/or concrete qualities—about the people and things to which they are applied?  For some people, they decidedly do.  Take, for instance, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill).  At the end of 2005, Speaker Hastert made a public statement about the enormous fir tree that was lit and decorated with traditional Christmas ornamentation for decades and rested on the west lawn of the White House for several weeks at the end of every year.  He advocated that the tree, known at the time as the “Holiday tree,” be renamed to its old, pre-late-1990s name, the “Capitol Christmas tree.”  The Capitol tree, not to be confused with the “National Christmas tree,” which sits in the White House, was renamed the Holiday Tree in the late-1990s in an effort to de-Christianize the public display on the White House lawn.  The idea behind the name change was to recognize, albeit tacitly, the plurality of religious holidays during the end of the year like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah alongside Christmas.  But this Washington D.C. tree by any other name than “Christmas” raised the ire of many people.  Speaker Hastert, through the mouthpiece of, Ron Bonjean, his spokesman, stated that he “believes a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, and it is as simple as that” (Emerling 2005).

In a similar instance around the same time as Speaker Hastert’s remarks, Boston’s Mayor, Thomas Menino, said the tree that lights up the Boston Commons from late November through the New Year, called the “Holiday tree” for several years prior to 2005, and which he plugs in every year to great pomp and circumstance, would demonstrably be a Christmas tree in 2005. “I grew up with a Christmas tree, and I’m going to stay with a Christmas tree,” Mayor Menino said.  Asked if he was influenced by the evangelist Jerry Falwell’s efforts to pressure Boston city officials to name, once and for all, the Boston Commons tree a “Christmas tree,” Menino replied: “I don’t need Jerry Falwell or anybody else to tell me it’s a Christmas tree” (Wangsness 2005).  The arboreal hullabaloo at Boston Commons extended even further, to a logger from Canada, Donnie Hatt, who felled the forty-eight foot fir.  Hatt said he never would have brought the tree from Nova Scotia to Boston if he would have known it might be called a “Holiday tree.”  Instead, he told a reporter, “I’d have cut it down and put it through the chipper.”  He continued, “If they decide it should be a holiday tree, I’ll tell them to send it back.  If it was a holiday tree, you might as well put it up at Easter” (Szep 2005).

To Dennis Hastert, Thomas Menino, Jerry Falwell, and Donnie Hatt these trees are not simply perennial flora with woody, self-supporting trunks.  The name “Christmas” appears to endow these trees with festive import and religious meaning denoting the Christian festival of the nativity of Christ.  It occurs every year on 25 December, and Christians typically celebrate the Nativity by erecting and decorating a fir tree.[1]  To decorate a tree at this time of year with ornaments and lights, to put it on display, and to call it a “Holiday tree” is for these men, and no doubt countless others, tantamount to recklessly rewriting history. The label “Holiday” ostensibly cannot contain or convey adequately the full meaning of Christmas in addition to the religious meaning inherent to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.  It’s one or none.  If the tree is not a Christmas tree, it is not worthy of several weeks of pageantry.

But if we pose the same question – What’s in a name? – to some of history’s brightest students and users of language, we might find, contrary to the examples above, that there actually is nothing in a name.  We might learn that, counter to Hastert et al, a name, like any word, is just a label, a tag we apply to a thing or an event that occurs in the world, nothing more or less.

What, for example, does the name “Peashoot” actually say about the author writing this essay?  No doubt it is difficult to separate the names of the people we know from the real warp and woof of the people themselves.  Once we have met a person, say the author of this essay, whenever we meet another Peashoot we are likely to perceive the author of this essay to some degree while taking into account the recently met Peashoot.  This is not to say that a person will necessarily think of the author this essay when she encounters her brother, for example, who is also named Peashoot.  Rather, it’s likely the name of the author of this essay takes on a uniquely individualized meaning when the person with the brother named Peashoot meets the author of the essay, Peashoot Chaplin.  And once she comes to know the new Peashoot, Mr. Chaplin, her brother Peashoot might not seem like the Peashoot she once knew.  The name “Peashoot” meant one set of things for her brother and now, having met the author of this essay, the name Peashoot has taken on new meaning.  For the author of this essay, the name Peashoot might be greater than the sum of his parts, yet we mentally categorize the personality and physicality of the writer of this essay in a mental file, under “P” for Peashoot.  We access the file as needed and add to it or take away from it as our impression of and relationship with Peashoot changes.  And, to complicate this oversimplification of how we cognitively store and use language, the “Peashoot file” is cross-listed with other files too, files we might title with classificatory words like “male,” “brunette,” “anxious,” “over six feet tall,” and so on, as each of us sees fit to apply words that aptly characterize the author of this essay.

Yogi Berra

We fix names and words to things because we want to be clear about whatever it is we think needs to be said about a person, thing, or event.  To be sure, when the wrong name or word is attached to a person or object we typically recognize the error straightaway.  To use a language well demands an ability to join words and names appositely to people, objects, places, and events.  Take, for example, the following directions of Yogi Berra—“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Set aside the absurdity that accompanies Yogi Berra’s enduring litany of quotations, and ask, seriously, what he might have meant.  Did he simply misspeak, or did he just advocate burglary?  Is there a fork lying in the road or is the shape of the road itself fork-like?  The general idea to glean from this, I think, is not that Yogi’s comment is simply incongruous, a gross non sequitur.  Though it is that, the more important point is that Yogi’s comment is off beam and confusing because of the range of meaning one can infer from the word fork and countless other words in the English language.  Yes, this example is almost too obvious, and, truth be told, Yogi Berra made a living out of his pithy illogicalities, or Yogiisms.  Still, this statement demonstrates emphatically how a four-letter word like “fork” may steer one off the course of standard and even comprehensible language use.

Yogi’s fork, to the give the benefit of the doubt to this one-time great New York Yankee, could be taken as clever wordplay rather than mere nonsense.  Most languages have words that can convey multiple meanings.  English has a good many. The duplicity of words enables one to make puns, double entendres, and euphemisms.  To be able to maneuver words inside and outside of certain contexts is a skill, often employed to comic effect, and it exploits the fragile connection of words and the objects to which they are (supposed to be) affixed.  This skill is what Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov referred to when they wrote about making use of language.

Ferdinand de Saussure

None other than the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, made an observation about “name tags” that was at once apparent yet innovative.  He observed that the names we use to represent objects in fact do not really affect the objects they point to.  In language, words and names do not exist on a one-to-one association with the objects we think they signify.  On Saussure’s view a linguistic unit, in this case a name or a word, is a double entity, unlike a thing which is singular.  The application of names to things, he argued, is a decidedly complicated process, for the realm of phenomena and the realm of language are distinct, and each has its own unique set of rules.[2]

For Saussure, language consists of a complex network of signs.  The linguistic sign is neither a thing nor a name but a relation that unites a concept and a sound-image; both are psychological, not physical, entities (Saussure 1966, 66).  Saussure used the term sign (signe) to indicate the union of a concept with a sound-image.  He then replaced the terms concept and sound-image with the now ubiquitous terms signified (signifié) and signifier (significant).  A signifier consists of words on a page or audible sound-images that make impressions upon our eardrums; this is also known as a signal.  A signified is the conception our brains envisage when we read a collection of letters or hear a sound or series of sounds; this is also known as a signification.  A signifier evokes a referent (a worldly object), and a signified is the product called up in our minds when we encounter a signifier.  Language signification, Saussure wrote, “works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine” (1966, 113).

The linguistic sign is a link between two abstract entities.  The sign connects, and is thus comprised of, a signal (which is a relation between a sound pattern and a physical sound) with a signification (a relation between a concept and a phenomenal object or event).  Saussure said that the sound pattern of the signal (signifier) and the concept of the signification (signified) are cognitive structures, which represent physical stimuli like sounds and worldly objects).

Saussure’s most often cited claim is that the linguistic sign is arbitrary. What did he mean by this?  The sign is arbitrary insofar as the relation between its constituent parts, the signifier and the signified, is wholly tenuous and random.  It is random in the sense that there is no reasonable underlying principle that determines the letters i-P-o-d or the sound born of these phonemes should produce in our brains an image of a small electronic device that stores and plays music.  Neither the orthography of “iPod” nor the auditory distinction of the uttered word “ipod” has an inherent connection to the thing itself, that is, to the electronic hardwiring and digital manufacturing of iPods.

Saussure’s definition of the linguistic sign translates into a continuous semiological chain of relations between signs, which are themselves sets of relations between sets of relations.  Saussure used the following diagram in his Course in General Linguistics to explain this association (NB: the double-headed arrow between each oval designates the sign –  1966, 115):

Saussure adamantly held that we should not study the sign in isolation from the system to which it belongs:

To consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain concept is grossly misleading.  To define [the sign] in this way would isolate the term from its system; it would mean assuming that one can start from the terms and construct the system by adding them together when, on the contrary, it is from the interdependent whole that one must start and through analysis obtain its elements (1966, 113).

We understand the meaning of a sign, therefore, only as it exists between any signal (image and sound) and signification (concept and thing).  Indeed, without a state of balance between the elements of signal and signification there would be no sign. The meaning, or value, of the signs that make up language, then, is a matter of internal relations.  Because the linguistic sign relies on associations (between signal and signification, or signifier and signified) that advance towards a state of balance, in which a signal triggers a signification in such a way that a cognition of understanding of a referent forms in the brain, the link—the linguistic sign—uniting the concept and acoustic impression is fundamentally arbitrary. To know the sign, one must consider the whole semiological system.

The association between the written or audible image and the concept (i.e., the sign) is arbitrary, according to Saussure, because of it lacks motivation.  Once a sign is established, it is in effect immutable and unchangeable.  To say it lacks motivation, then, is to say that the relation between a linguistic image (acoustic, pictographic, or orthographic) and the concept the image sets off in our brains is not dependent on the free will of the language user.  In fact, Saussure thought the arbitrary nature of the sign is what ensures language cannot be modified easily.  He further thought most people are not truly conscious of their languages and language use.  In general, he argued that languages are conservative and change only over great spans of time.  Changes in the ways signifiers relate to signifieds in a language are not simply made by specific, individual users of a language community, on Saussure’s view.  Communities, too, rarely make such changes.  Saussure suggested that a language is a knowledge system we inherit and that language is anchored in a set of rules, a grammar, that we cannot alter.  Languages do change, however, but at such a slow clip and over such great breadths of time that we only come to see these changes from an historical perspective.

Use and interpretation, however, can rend asunder conservation in language.  And this, I think, Roland Barthes and J.L. Austin each in their own unique ways recognized and articulated by ascribing to language users the ability to know that their words will be understood differently in different contexts and by different people.  It’s true that language can be used to generate multiple effects.  This allows the language user both to wield great command over his or her language use and render the creative language user culpable for his or her language use.  Take the political mythmakers in the US, for example, whose rhetoric is especially important to analyze nowadays in advance of the national election. I would suggest do not change language but work it. They make use of language so that multiple meanings may be expressed on multiple levels of cognition, some of which are conscious and some of which are not.

[1] The symbolism could be carried out further: gifts are placed under the tree to represent the gifts presented to Mary and Joseph by the Three Wise Men who journeyed to see the newborn baby; usually a star is placed atop the tree to symbolize the Pole Star that guided the Wise Men on their journey; and so on.

[2] Since the publication of Saussure’s Cours (Course in General Linguistics, 1966 [1916]), which is a summary of Saussure’s lectures as professor of general linguistics at the University of Geneva from 1907-1911, the lion’s share of scholars whose work involves the study of language have invoked, in one way or another, Saussure’s work on language and most often his work on the linguistic sign.


4 thoughts on “Les noms et les choses: What’s in a Name?

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    I loved this post – very entertaining. On one level, it reminds me of the debate had in this forum over Zappa’s defense of his lyrics on Crossfire as merely “words”. How would Saussure critique FZ’s assertions?

    Never having studied linguistics or Saussure won’t stop me from throwing in my two cents on this post. The Christmas tree example is fantastic. To Christians, “perennial flora, with woody self-supporting trunks” are not themselves a “Christmas” tree until they are in some form adorned with lights, garland and ornamental design. To the ACLU – who continually oppose that symbol on public space – renaming it a “holiday” tree removes none of its “true” meaning, but cleverly hides it so as to subvert the separation of church from state. Despite changing the nomenclature from Christmas to holiday, has the rebranding in any significant way altered the manner that signifiers relate to the signified?

    A former professor (cannot remember who or in what class or context) assigned readings of George Orwell’s essays. I believe they were called “On Language” but do not hold me to it. Fascinating stuff. Written while the ashes of WWII still smoldered, Orwell lamented how the word “fascism” had lost all meaning – very prescient. In Orwell’s definition, fascism had come to mean that which is not desired. Google “Bush/Fascism” or “Obama/Fascism” and you get thousands of hits, albeit mostly idiotic. But in terms of how signifiers relate to the signified these two Google searches demonstrate that what constitutes a rose, to incorporate Juliet, might not be a rose to another.

    Or not. I have a history of messing this stuff up. Anyway, loved the post.

  2. wildbillyscircusstory

    This just occurred to me: would Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine be a nice example of Saussure’s theory or no? Just throwing it out there.

    1. peashoot Post author

      Yeah, I think so. Very good example. More subtle than a Yogiism, and their delivery nicely underscores the comedy born of the linguistic sign’s arbitrariness. There is, of course, also potential danger in it, for if it can be manipulated for comedic effect, it can be manipulated for deception and obfuscation too. I’d bet a lot of people are not aware of the various levels of meaning they convey when they speak, write, and gesture language(s). And that’s why it’s good to know the context, or why, as Saussure said, we shouldn’t study the sign in isolation from the system to which it belongs. As an active trial lawyer, taking depositions and cross-examining witnesses, it’s no surprise you’d appreciate this conversation.

  3. Pingback: Quickie #7: Call Me… (Anything But Maybe) « Rose of Sharon

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