Does the name of something change its meaning?

Published 3:28 pm Saturday, June 30, 2018

Have you ever heard the question “What’s in a name?” When people ask that, it is often meant as a rhetorical inquiry, not with an expectation of an answer. In the minds of the person asked, the normal reaction is to move on with the conversation.

After all, the name of something doesn’t change, alter, mutate or otherwise remake a thing.

Ah, but not so fast, my friend.

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In a sense, a thing, an object, a person, even a situation or incident doesn’t exist until it has a label. Sure, our senses recognize that something is there, and our brains may label it: dog, cloud, beer. But a broad term does not wholly pin down what one sees.

For instance, thinking “animal” as one goes by doesn’t name the critter as much as “dog,” which isn’t as direct as “Cocker Spaniel.” If, by chance, you know the owner and think “Margaret’s,” yet another layer of specificity — and possibly emotion — may be added to your mental net.

Yesterday I watched a small rounded green creature slowly traverse my backyard. Now, I like turtles and spend much time photographing them. I have one — with a notch in its shell that identifies it — that has been visiting me for over ten years. What do you think my reaction would be to finding Turtle Soup on a restaurant menu?

You guessed it: I’d probably exit the joint.

Not long ago along the shoulders of many roads, spiny growths appeared. They resembled porcupines but they were vegetative, not animal. At times, the broad growth at the tops of stalks turned red. I like the look, took some close-up shots and printed them.

When someone looked through my box of flower pictures and came to the spiny one, the reaction was “That’s a cactus” or something like that. Not “that’s a flower” or even “that’s an ugly flower.” Conclusion: flowers look like flowers.

Recently, I shot a picture of a lovely bouquet a friend had given his wife. At the base of the arrangement was a very weird flower. Turns out it was a cabbage. I excerpted it from the group, printed it, and added it to my flower box.

Again, reaction was “that’s a cabbage.” No one said “that’s a rose” or “what a nice carnation.”

The upshot of all this is that things, people, events, get tagged X, Y or Z, and other people repeat the designation. In time X is firmly X, with a set of regular attributes that distinguish it from Y and Z.

In the case of people’s names, often a child is given a name in the hope that he or she will grow up to be like his namesake (a relative or famous person.) Some families even carry on names from generation to generation, perhaps ending up with a fourth: Theodore Throckmorton IV. [As commenting on names given to kids can create contention, perhaps we should pass that listing.]

Of course, some boys grow up to just be Junior. Ever wonder why girls can’t be juniors?

Some namesakes are called by their number: Trey for instance. I’ve heard of someone being tagged Ivey for his place in the family evolution. Don’t think I’ve run into Seco (or whatever the number two in the line might be shortened to.)

The way I label things in my world very much follows echoes of what I heard as a child.

Many of my likes and dislikes blossom with the same inclinations or prejudices that I absorbed when I was too young to understand what I was learning.

Well, were I to have another son, he would not be named Adolph, and if you come to my house for a meal, turtle soup will not be on the menu.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.