A something or other with no name

“To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love.” – Maria Popova in How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

We tend to view the world through the lens of our language. Students taking language classes are often surprised that many of their pet phrases and notions have no twin in the language they’re being taught. Why not? The native speakers of that language see the world differently. My stories about, say, Glacier National Park, would be much different if they had been written in Blackfeet or Kootenai.

As a storyteller (writing in English for others who speak English), I see that naming things is both a sign of respect and acknowledgement as well as a limiting factor. When you name a mountain “Chair Rock,” you’re doing a normal thing. But you’re also making it difficult to see the rock any other way. If you see a translation of a story that includes “Chair Rock,” the name may suddenly be further away from your world view than the author will ever know.

In many cultures, people hide their true names–sometimes called “basket names”–from people outside the family because those names are linked to their true selves and telling them gives others a power over you. I can respect that. When I write, there is much that I refuse to say.

americahorsewithnonameThere’s an old gag about Dewey Bunnell’s song “A Horse with No Name,” recorded by America in 1971, that what with all that time in the desert, couldn’t the guy name the horse?

It’s hard to visualize the song, originally called “Desert,” with a horse named Fury or Flicka or Mr. Ed. Perhaps he didn’t respect the horse other than to say he was, in fact, riding a horse rather than something or other. Or, perhaps, the horse didn’t want its true name to be known.

Here, I’m respecting Dewey Bunnell and America by mentioning them. For a writer, that’s intentional because–as is often the case–those names have been forgotten while–in this case–the song is still widely known.

The specifics we include in our storytelling are there not because we are are name dropping or “adding a bunch of description” (as some call it) or playing with a place names dictionary or a “this date in history” website.

They are in the story because they confer the “dignity of autonomy” and because they’re an affirmation of their existence, as Maria Popova calls it. The realities in a story tie the story to a time and place as part of what happened their or how the world moved there. They are also in the story because the characters living in that time or place would know them and have empathy for them–as perhaps you, the reader, will know them as you read.

I included a glossary in the back of Conjure Woman’s Cat because the story includes folk magic terms, blues songs and performers’ names that they characters in the story would know. If Conjure Woman’s Cat were nonfiction, I could have included footnotes. The glossary seemed less distracting.

Part of research is changing what a writer knows about his or her story in progress from a something or other to something specific and loved and known within the context of the tale and the language in which it’s told. To paraphrase Jim Croce, like the pine trees and the croaking toad, everything in the story has a name.

If an author gets those names right, s/he can immerse you into the real and/or fictional world where those names arise even though–like maps–they’re not the territory.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”

2 thoughts on “A something or other with no name

  1. michael loughrey

    Great post Malcolm, bravo. Noted the Alfred Korzybski quote – “The map is not the territory” One illustration Korzybski was fond of using in his lectures was to point to a chair and announce, “This is not a chair.” That party-piece must have been a bit of a brain-stopper in the Thirties. His intent was to bring home that the word “chair” is not something we sit upon. (Rene Magritte’s painting showing a pipe and, written beneath, the words “This is not a pipe” [he also painted a French version] makes the same point, with the added fillip that the pipe itself is not a real object but a painting.)

    All best,
    Michael Loughrey

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