FARMERS will tell you: “never name an animal you’re going to eat.”
Giving an animal a human-like name particularises it and anthropomorphises it, releasing it from the categories of “food” and “commodity”.
It’s not the animal, nor its culinary potential, that’s altered but the way it gets treated. And we who give it the name, and other people who know the name… we are the ones who change. For us, the named creature, now an inedible companion, begins accumulating a story, an identity; it becomes an increasingly influential part of our lives as the story grows and deepens. And the more it gazes into our eyes and curls up purring on our laps, the less like food it looks.
“Other” names break through food boundaries that, crafted by centuries of history and culture, have become embedded in everyday vocabulary. So, for example, escargot is a word that can turn a “snail” into a delicious delicacy… but say “snails” and most North Americans start gagging. There’s a market for horse meat in Canada, and I understand it’s a delicious and healthy source of protein, but there’s growing opposition to it based specifically around the idea of eating horseflesh, even though the culls would continue with or without that market.
Within cultures, all sorts of preferences and avoidances are shaped. What is preferred in one culture is neutral in another and loathed in another. And our names too can plunge us into all of that complexity.
Some of us have names our parents chose to reflect family relationships and friendships to draw us into a community. Some of us carry names intended to encourage a sense of our own uniqueness. Some parents name children after celebrities of their day, while celebrities of our day devise names for their children that often seem calculated to set them apart. In some troubled parts of the world, children have been named “Kali” after “Kalishnikov”, the weapons manufacturer.
Once a name is ours, we can be made over into the minds of others who construct and orchestrate our social presence. We “fit in” or are “fitted in”… then face the responsibility of growing our name into its presence in community discourse. But, whether we recognize that responsibility, whether we care or not, no matter what our inner sentiments may be, we are seen to grow and take shape within that skin of external reality. We are all of us bound to discover while we are still quite young what it means to be misunderstood.
Our name becomes the avatar that other people have created and maintain for us… it’s felt in the twinge of fear when we wonder “what will other people think?” or the surprise when someone offers us some praise we never saw coming.
Try as we might, it’s hard to remain an impassive mollusc as others begin shape our destinies as “snails” or “escargots”.
But life opens before us and we attach our accomplishments, successes and failures, experiences and relationships to our name. Our name grows private and public identities and is the label by which the sum of our selves is known
Some of us choose to act our identity out as “image”, constantly trying to enhance it; some of us hope to flee it by moving on. Some of us go so far as to change our names, adopt aliases, or try to act in anonymity. We can escape temporarily into online avatars — to a point — and it can flet us to unleash a few impulses for expression denied us in the “real” world. But it’s not good to spend too long in that thin ether.
In urban and urban-influenced modern life, we tend to give our children names we “like”, without too much calculation behind it. We see ourselves as free and independent entities, choosing our social contexts as we wish and as we go along. Our world is fluid and laden with opportunities. We see our children being free to put their own stamp on the name we give them.
But our names, and our children’s names, can be laden with consequence. They can be sources of empowerment or liabilities; liberating or confining. A name can admit it bearer to the benefits of positive stereotyping or preclude that advantage. Barrack Obama’s “foreign” sounding name has been flourished as a weapon by right wing extremists in the United States to incite hostility and undermine the authority of their own duly elected President: actions that in some nations would be considered treason. In the extreme Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, a Shi’ite name like Omar (the name of Islam’s second Caliph) can get you killed. Meanwhile, the United States Navy’s insistence on referring to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” is ethnically provocative in a region that’s alight with tensions and conflict.
An overtly “Jewish” name marked a person for death in Nazi-sympathising Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, and there are parts of the world where, to this day, it is of no great help. Traditionally-minded Rom (gypsies) shun surnames altogether. And among the stories you’ll hear from New World immigrants there are often accounts of ancestors having changed family surnames to something more pronounceable or to conceal a particular ethnic origin in the hope of being more readily accepted into their new communities. It is a migration from one community-held stereotype to another.
Names can be misleading. In olden Highland Scottish culture, for example, a commoner who moved from one community to another typically took the surname of the local chief. While the form of government may have leaned towards feudal exploitation, the cohesion of a clan was based on real or opportunistic notions of family. It helped to create an extraordinary romanticism. There are many people who, though distanced by time, DNA and geography from the reality, delight in Highland heritage assets that include a landscape, a history and a mythology, a language and music, costume and identity… despite their ancestors having fled or been expelled by the proprietors of that heritage. There’s a kind of identity nostalgia for the very castles in whose pit dungeons their ancestors may well have innocently languished.
In many cultures, naming is — or has been — an act of supreme significance: understood as a serious, ritualized and deliberate act that binds a named place, person, creature or object into a relationship with a particular community, culture, religion, caste or family. Naming often follows well-established cultural traditions rather than personal preference.
Near Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island there is a named tree: Te Waha O Rerekohu. It is a magnificent old tree. A sign in English not only points out why this tree is special in its own right, and gives it the status of its own story, but also, by linking its name to a chiefly genealogy, deploys the power of kinship. This puts the tree under the protection of almost every Maori person born in the region by virtue of familial relationship. The recording of the genealogy in effect names each of those relatives personally.
The naming of this tree is far from unique… and not only trees are named: there are named tools and weapons, valuable garments, buildings, places, landscapes. The distinction we so routinely make between animate and inanimate is effectively erased by this kind of naming.
What this kind of naming achieves is a repositioning, not in fact but in the mind. It is an anchor sunk in human consciousness.
All names have the potential to provide something of this quality. But it’s also helpful, perhaps necessary, to weigh that anchor from time to time.
Ideally, the possession of a name that can exist as sound, as fleeting vibrations in the air, should remind us less of the power of our unique, separate individuality than of our fleeting relationship with all of life… not just “the neighbours” but with every thing and living creature.
Maybe it’d help to go to a lonely hilltop and shout your name out loud to the farthest places you can see, announcing your claim of kinship… I confess that I’ve done it and found that it both startling and humbling. It somehow put things back into perspective; it helped detach me from the epicentre of my own small centripetal thoughts and identity and the chatter that so readily enmeshes us. It broke the shell. It helped free me to realign my priorities. I did it a second time and imagined that laughter came back to me. The third time, I was aware only of silence. I felt a mere mollusc again, vulnerable but free.
It was a feeling that reminded me to hold in regard those too easily forgotten things and creatures for which I have no name. Our names, known or unknown, are not our all-important essence.
There’s also the real, breathing, blood-circulating, nerve-knitted, sentient, feeling, thinking and intelligent substance… the miracle of life.
|This replica storehouse and explanatory sign stand beneath|
the spreading canoppy of the tree called “Te-Waha-O-Rerekohu”