Still giving it a name: Language in Thought and Action is worth a read

This book I’m reading, Language in Thought and Action, explores the importance and power of words in shaping the lives of individuals and societies. It has been said many times before, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus: definitely worth a read.

One passage I came across this morning, about the power of names, inspired me. This is because part of what storytellers do is try to package and apply labels to chaos (the dominant state of affairs, Lars von Trier seems to say, through a self-cannibalizing fox, in the recent film “Antichrist”) in order to exercise control over it. Though I cringed at the word “control,” I stand by it. A story, understood one way, is a very long name for a human experience. By telling it, we give ourselves a tool to navigate that experience with less harm to ourselves and others, which is great for surviving to be productive the next day, though storytelling seems to consume a hard-to-define component of life in its execution (check out “Mediated” by Thomas de Zengotita).

Here is the passage from Language in Thought and Action, starting at the bottom of page 47:

The primitive confusion of word with thing, of symbol with thing symbolized, manifests itself in some parts of the world in a belief that the name of a person is part of that person. To know someone’s name, therefore, is to have power over him. Because of this belief, it is customary among some peoples for children to be given at birth a “real name” known only to the parents and never used, as well as a nick name or public name to be called by in society. In this way, a child is protected from being put in anyone’s power. The story of Rumpelstiltskin is a European illustration of this belief in the power of names.

Thomas Mann, in Joseph and His Brethren, gives the following dramatic account of the power of names, according to ancient Jewish beliefs:

[Joseph, speaking of a lion.] “But if he had come, with lashing tail, and roared after his prey, like the voice of the changing seraphim, yet thy child would have been little affrighted or not at all before his rage. … For knoweth not my father that the beasts fear and avoid man, for that God gave him the spirit of understanding and taught him the orders into which single things fall; doth he not know how Shemmael shrieked when the man of earth knew how to name the creation as though he were its master and framer. . .? And the beasts too they are ashamed and put the tail between their legs because we know them and have power over their names and can thus render powerless the roaring might of the single one, by naming him. If now he had come, with long slinking tread, with his hateful nose, mewing and spitting, terror would not have robbed me of my senses, nor made me pale before his riddle. ‘Is thy name Blood-Thirst?’ I would have asked of him making merry at his expense. ‘Or Springing Murder?’ But there I would have sat upright and cried out: ‘Lion! Lo, Lion art thou, by nature and species, and thy riddle lieth bare before me, so that I speak it out and with a laugh it is plain.’ And he would have blinked before the name and gone meekly away before the word, powerless to answer unto me. For he is quite unlearned and knows naught of writing tools.”

If you want a more contemporary example of this dynamic being played out, check out “Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead.” If I recall correctly, the phrase “give it a name” pops up repeatedly in this film. Here is a discussion on IMDb about its significance.

Also, look at the debate around same-sex marriage. People on both sides vehemently battle over the meaning of the word “marriage.” This of course is not just a linguistic exercise; it’s trying to come to a conclusion as to what meanings the word can accommodate, and these types of structures shape how and why we live. In “Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead” terms, there is a struggle underway as to what name to give same-sex relationships. “Domestic partnership” or “civil union,” even if they came with legal rights identical to those of a “marriage,” would carry a far different weight, no?

And here’s an animated version of Rumpelstiltskin. The real drama about the power of names doesn’t kick in until the 5:32 point:

Finally, the memorable talking fox in “Antichrist”:

Oh, wait, one more “and.”

Shakespeare supplied his own take on these concepts, too, with the cries of Juliet (“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”). Gertrude Stein gave an interesting follow-up poem (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”).

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