Archives For Name

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 14 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

______

* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.

Government & Baboons

July 30, 2013 — 11 Comments

I recently read an interesting article about battling terrorism from an international base in Djibouti. Many African nations have joined those from Europe and North America in trying to protect vulnerable villages from the ravages of violent extremism.

However, as readers of Mere Inkling know, we don’t deal with political matters here. Everyday life, yes. Writing and self-expression, of course. Faith, definitely. Imagination, most certainly. Current events are also on the table for consideration, insofar as they relate to the aforementioned subjects.

Politics though, as a subject in and of itself, is not on the Mere Inkling menu.

With that in mind, I want to share a passage from the Air Force magazine article. In a description of “a recent personnel recovery mission in Ethiopia,” it says,

The HC-130s landed at night on a pitch-black airstrip, but first had to make a “clearing pass” to scare a congress of baboons and a pod of hippopotamuses off the runway.

Quite a picture. However, the image itself only made part of the impression left on me by this sentence. More lasting was the reminder of what a group of baboons is called.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating essay about government entitled “Democratic Education.” One of many of its many kernels of wisdom is this: “Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”

Returning to the subject of animals, the second chapter of Genesis tells us,

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.

So, Adam named the animals, and I imagine that after her creation, Eve helped her husband refine some of those appellations. What I don’t know is this—exactly who decided how we label groups of the same species?

I would point out how apropos baboons being referred to as a “congress” is . . . except for two considerations. (1) The connection would be lost on many readers whose governments have parliaments, and (2) It turns out this is actually an error. The actual word for baboon bands is a “troop.” So much for their unfortunate association with an organization that has lost the confidence of nine out of ten Americans.

Here are a few of the familiar and unfamiliar collective nouns for a variety of animals, with some brief comments and questions.

Lions | Pride – Aptly named!

Prairie Dogs | Coterie – I never considered prairie dogs snobbish.

Kittens | Intrigue – I should have learned that from simple observation.

Finches | Charm – They really do, don’t they?

Wombats | Wisdom – Wisdom to Aussies, a mystery to me.

Pekingese | Pomp – Well, perhaps just slightly elitist.

Cobras | Quiver – Logical, given the prospect of meeting a group of vipers.

Peacocks | Ostentation – Much nicer than the “pride” option.

Barracudas | Battery – Same as electric eels, I suppose.

Crows | Murder – A term familiar to most literary folk.

Bullfinches | Bellowing – Huh? Sounds more hippopotamusish.

Cows | Kine – Have to thank the medieval English for this one.

Seabirds | Wreck – Beware when they fly overhead.

Bacteria | Culture – And what kind of civilization have they ever built?

Deer | Gang – Must be the teenagers, before they become a herd.

Cockroaches | Intrusion – Accurate, repulsive and ominous.

Guillemots | Bazaar – What’s a guillemot, and what is it selling?

Cormorants | Gulp – Didn’t their momma’s teach them to chew?

Cheetahs | Coalition – Wouldn’t “a ‘sprint’ of cheetahs” sound better?

Woodpeckers | Descent – Am I missing something here?

Clams | Bed – Not much else to do in the clam-world.

Turtledoves | Pitying – Meaning they take pity on us, not vice versa.

Bobolinks | Chain – Cute, but lost on Americans where they’re known as reedbirds or ricebirds.

Snails | Walk – Someone’s lacking a bit in creativity here.

Ravens | Unkindness – Speaking of unkind, who labeled them this?

Flamingoes | Stand – Come on now, isn’t that a bit obvious?

Giraffe | Tower – I guess the flamingoes aren’t the only ones.

Lice | Flock – That is way too nice a word for those vermin!

Alligators | Congregation – As a pastor, I simply don’t want to go there.

This is way too much fun, but I’d better stop now so I can revisit this theme in a year or so. Until then, if you learn who gave that unkind name to groups of ravens, let me know.

The Power of Names

June 10, 2013 — 18 Comments

babyC.S. Lewis was a man who recognized the power of a name. In fact, that awareness made the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of the most memorable in all of Christian literature: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Names are used, of course, for identification. Throughout history, different countries have had different naming conventions. A rather common one featured the giving of a personal name to a child, with the patronym added to distinguish between individuals of the same name.

This led to distinctions such as James ben Zebedee of the Christian gospels or Leifr Eiríksson the first millennium explorer of North America. Hearkening back to my own Scandinavian roots, I favor the innovative example Ole Olson, or more commonly Ole Olsen. (The only problem with this name was that it failed to distinguish one Ole from the thousands of other Ole Olsons who dotted the steep coastlines of the Viking fjords.)

God too reveals the importance of names. In the Gospel according to Matthew we read:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21).

In one of the most powerful prophecies ever recorded, we hear various titles—in essence, names—of the Messiah Jesus.

For to us a child is born,

   to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

                                                             (Isaiah 9:6).

The reason that names are on my mind is because recent research has revealed that in America (well, California precisely, and assuming that data can be applied to the entire country) . . . the choice of baby names can even evidence the political leanings of the parents. Now, we’re not talking about parents who name their children directly in honor of a particular politician; it’s much more subtle than that.

Here are a couple of interesting facts gleaned from the study.

The results revealed that overall, the less educated the parent, the more likely they were to give their child either an uncommon name (meaning fewer than 20 children got the same name that year in California), or a unique name (meaning only one child got that name in 2004 in California). When parents had less than a college education, there were no major ideological differences in naming choice.

However, among college-educated whites, politics made a difference. College-educated moms and dads in the most liberal neighborhoods were twice as likely as college-educated parents in the most conservative neighborhoods to give their kids an uncommon name. Educated conservatives were more likely to favor popular names, which were defined as names in the top 100 in California that year.

The sounds of liberal and conservative names varied, too. For both boys and girls, liberals tended to pick more feminine-sounding choices, such as Liam, Ely and Leila names that include lots of L sounds and soft-A endings, including popular choices Ella and Sophia. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to pick names with more masculine-sounding Ks, Bs, Ds and Ts, such as Kurt.

Beware of the temptation of attempting to jump aboard a naming fad. “Unique baby names can sometimes grate, however. In 2011 . . . an informal survey of hated baby names found that Nevaeh, or ‘heaven’ spelled backward, was the most commonly cited as a hated name. The name was invented in the 1990s and became the 31st most popular in the United States in 2007.”

My wife and I are surely in a minority. We chose the names for all three of our children based upon their meanings . . . a practice quite common in the Scriptures.

C.S. Lewis knew well the power of a name.

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. . . . Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

It comes as no surprise to any Narnian sojourner that the very name of Aslan should so move his followers. After all, we too understand Who the great Lion is. For, as he once said to Lucy and Edmund, when asked if he was here in our world as well,

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Most readers of Mere Inkling are either fans of C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings, or writers interested in similar topics such as adventure, virtue, imagination, and spirituality. In light of that, and the fact that the finale of the trilogy won Oscar for Best Film, I assume the vast majority have seen “The Lord of the Rings.”

When you watched the films, with whom did you most identify? Ladies had options from warriors, to counselors, to royalty. Likewise for the men. Then there were the different races of Middle Earth . . . did you cast yourself as human, elf or dwarf? Or perhaps, as a modest, earthy hobbit? (I hope there weren’t too many who identified with the orcs, and if you did, I’d suggest an appointment with your local therapist.)

If the notion of living a long, peaceful life, studying the arts and enjoying God’s creation inspires you, then it may be you possess a kinship with the Elvish soul. And if you do (or even if you’re merely curious) there is a wonderful website where you can learn not only how to speak your name in the Elf tongue, but also to write it in the Elf script.

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ treasured friend, was at heart a philologist. Few people have ever lived who shared the intensity of his love for language. Not everyone knows though, that the matchless realm of Middle Earth with its timeless sagas grew neither from a vision for the heroic story nor out of the visualization of any of its vibrant inhabitants. No, the seeds of the most renowned fantasy realm ever envisioned, were planted and watered by Tolkien’s love of language.

It was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings).

Tolkien’s passion for the languages of Middle Earth is legend. Today, other linguists continue to study, document and teach the sophisticated system. Tolkien’s creation was so complex that it resulted in the creation (and evolution) of several languages—distinguished by both history and geography. In the same way, Tolkien was not content to settle for a single version of text with which to pen these musical dialects. He created no fewer than three styles, with Tengwar being most familiar. (You can download these and related fonts here.)

So, how exactly do you discover your Elvish name?

There have long been “random generators” for Middle Earth-sounding names. The generator at one site renders my Elvish name as Eöl Séregon, which does sound fairly distinguished. (Who knows whether or not it means anything?) These programs may satisfy the curiosity of the passing surfer seeking random oddities. However, for those who respect the love Tolkien invested in his linguistic progeny, this will never suffice.

Fortunately, there is an amazing website, overseen by a bona fide lover of languages. Moreover, his site is devoted to maintaining the integrity of Tolkien’s Elvish tongues. (And many of us who are writers are similarly enamored with language itself, making this a worthwhile domain to visit.)

The host of Quenya101 embraced the tongue so completely that in college he even took lecture notes in the language! Today he teaches Quenya through his website and other means. Although there’s a long waiting list (that can be circumvented, I believe, by donating to the site) he will actually translate names into Quenya. Note that I said “translate.” This is no mere transposing of letters.

He does not waste his time with transliterations. He actually applies the etymology of your given name to rendering the very same meaning in the Elvish language. For good measure, he provides a Tengwar rendition of your Elvish name. (It may be that he has already translated your name and has it posted at the site.)

Here’s how it works, as illustrated by my own name. Fortunately, my father’s name has also been translated, so I am seeking the Quenya for “Robert (son of) Charles.”

Robert

From: Germanic name Hrodebert.

Meaning: Bright fame, derived from the Germanic elements

     hrod ”fame” and beraht “bright”.

Quenya: Calialcaro

     (calima+alcar+[o] = bright+splendour, glory+[masculine names suffix])

Charles

From: Germanic name Karl, which was derived from the same Germanic word. However, an alternative theory states that it is derived from the common Germanic element hari

Meaning: Karl means “man” & hari means “army, warrior”

Quenya: Nér (nér = man) or Ohtatyaro (ohtatyaro = warrior)

So, henceforth you may address me as Calialcaro Ohtatyaro!

It is encouraging to see people keeping alive the vision and wonder of Middle Earth. The same is true for Narnia, of course, though you cannot really compare the purpose. These magical realms were both created by geniuses. It is a divine coincidence that these men, with major differences in their temperaments and imaginations, were lifelong friends.

Discovering your unique Elvish name can establish a dramatic connection with an imaginary, but at the same time gloriously real, realm.