Naming Things

Why it’s significant.

My bologna has a first name. As does my car. As does just about everything else in the world, but I don’t know what most of those names are.

Naming things is a very human pursuit, all the way back to Adam. Unfortunately, taxonomy as a discipline is diminishing, according to Carol Kaesuk Yoon in an article in last week’s New York Times, “Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World.” She writes that no one outside of taxonomy is too upset about this decline, but we should be:

The past few decades have seen a stream of studies that show that sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it.

Later in the article she writes about people who, due to brain damage, lose the ability to distinguish living objects, and how utterly disorienting this is:

As curious as they are, these patients and their woes would be of little relevance to our own lives, if they had merely lost some dispensable librarianlike ability to classify living things. As it turns out, their situation is much worse. These are people completely at sea. Without the power to order and name life, a person simply does not know how to live in the world, how to understand it. How to tell the carrot from the cat — which to grate and which to pet? They are utterly lost, anchorless in a strange and confusing world. Because to order and name life is to have a sense of the world around, and, as a result, what one’s place is in it.

She encourages us to use this amazing ability, to pay attention to the world around us, to “just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. Give a nod to Professor Franclemont and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own.”

The whole article is wonderful, so read it  and then take time to get acquainted with your bologna, your car, a tree, a bug, a cloud, or really just about anything at all.

Anna Speckhard has an advanced theology degree from Westminster Theological Seminary (California).


  • August 21, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    1) Call me a structuralist, but do you think naming is also a way of comprehending – that is, apprehending the whole thing, and seeing it in a simple, manageable form? I see some positives here for the beginnings of imaginative thinking, but some would criticize that naming therefore involves making things TOO simple, which can lead to exploitation. With people, it’s obvious what this means. With things … I don’t know. What do you think? It seems there are positives and negatives in the act of naming, since it sometimes implies possessing.
    2) My favorite concept of the year is articulation. I have been thinking about how gender may not be perfectly natural, but our cultural and linguistic articulation of the concept brings out what would otherwise be a fuzzy reality. It leads us into a more full understanding of gender than the “natural” form, which might seem slightly more angrogynous because less specific – but that does not mean it is more “true.” Articulation is development. Similarly, I can see how naming can be a part of articulation in our understanding of the world.
    3) Personalize “your bologna, your car, a tree, a bug, a cloud”? You and your pantheism…

  • August 21, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    3)a. Just kidding. But for the record, bologna does not deserve a name.

  • August 23, 2009

    Anna Speckhard

    1. Naming itself is inevitable, because it’s how we make sense of the world. If you didn’t name things how would you talk about them? But it can certainly do injustice to the thing named, in numerous ways. And naming most certainly involves possession, because by naming something you are showing that you “grasp” it, and while I suppose this is bad when done in error, or for the purpose of exploitation, basically it’s a wonderful thing. It is essential to any relationship, and ultimately I think it’s covenantal.

    2. Agreed. As for gender being fuzzy, in spite of articulation:

    3. “I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name…” What Disney movie? 🙂

    I should have distinguished between naming (as in giving personal names) and learning the proper names of oak vs. elm trees, or whatever. Everything in life does not need a personal name (although I lean towards excess in this area) but I would like to know better the names of things beyond “that’s a nice cloud.” Well, what kind of cloud is it?

    3a. Bologna must have a name! Or how else would I distinguish it amongst all the other bolognas at the supermarket and maintain my hard-earned consumer preference? 🙂

  • February 10, 2011

    Maria K.

    Hi Anna! Fancy seeing you here! (This is Susanna’s friend from PA). I happened upon this blog in a round about way (I know Miriel Thomas’s family from college). What a great blog! Look forward to reading more of it. 🙂

  • February 15, 2011


    Hi Maria! It really is a small world after all. :)Hope you’re enjoying your reading!

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