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.