Strategic Naming (in this Case, a Tree)

Sometimes we take names for granted.

I’m walking across campus with a friend. It’s almost 9:00 in the morning, the air is cool, and we pass two trees. One of them is beginning to turn a bright orange, but the other is still a deep green and, judging from what I think I know of that kind of tree, will probably stay that way until it dies. If I wanted to, I can gesture to my friend and say, “Look at the differences in color between those trees,” and she will know what I mean. I just have to say the word tree, and understanding–as well as an act of directing the attention–will take place. In this moment of calling attention to a particular tree, however, I’m not really thinking much about what a tree is or why I’m calling it what I think it is. I’m simply admiring its beauty.

No, this is not the tree.
Courtesy of WikiCommons

But if I wanted to, I could call it something different. I could have pointed to the deep green tree and called it, not a tree, but a “tall green thing”? Would my friend have understood me? Well, probably. Perhaps certainly, at least if I was gesturing to the “tall green thing” and she noticed my gesture. But she would, at least, probably wonder why I had chosen to call the object at which I was pointing a “tall green thing” instead of a tree. Since both of us have a mutual understanding of what the word tree means, she may be curious as to why I had given the object such a peculiar name. My act of calling the tree something is an act of naming, and my acts of naming, though most of them are subconscious (or perhaps unconscious), are influential because these acts do something, both to those who hear them and those who use them.

Suppose, further, that I had named the object, not merely a “tall green thing” or even a tree, but a Bristlecone Pine. By calling the object something, I have named the object. And the words with which I choose to name the object reflect, to some degree, my own understanding of the world. By giving the tree that name of Bristlecone Pine, I may reveal several things. First, I may reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about the tree itself to identify it as a Bristlecone Pine. I may also reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about Bristlecone Pines in general to be able to identify a specific instance of the kind. If I am correct in my act of naming, I have revealed that I really do know what I thought I knew. But if I am incorrect, I could be one of two kinds of people: I could be the kind of person that thought I knew that my act of naming was correct but was in fact mistaken, or on the other hand, I could have been the kind of person (and this is the worst kind) that did know that he was mistaken but deliberatly called the tree something that it wasn’t as part of an attempt to deceive others. Whatever I do, by choosing to call the object a Bristlecone Pine instead of a tree or a “tall green thing,” I have also subtly influenced the way hearers have understood what I have said and who I am as a person who has an ability to speak.

Whatever I choose to call this thing, my choice reflects my own belief, knowledge, and attitude in the moment of naming whatever that thing is. I can point to the tree and say, “Green Thing!” and I’ll both assert and reveal something different than if I raise my chin in its general direction and say, “Pinus longaeva.”

Most of the time when we speak, however, we’re less conscious of the names that we give things. Part of education, I believe, is to make our acts of naming conscious, deliberate, and above all, honest. Not only that, but as soon as we develop the ability to see what happens in a moment of naming, we begin to cultivate the capacity to be a careful and cautious judge of the acts of naming that happen all around us.

(By the way, as far as I know the tree discussed above is not in fact a Bristlecone Pine or Pinus Longaeva. I just chose a random pine tree to write this article. I don’t know very much about trees, but then again I’m not really talking about trees here, either.)

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