WNPR

What's In a Name?

Mar 26, 2015

Author Michael Erard is interested in how and why we name things - especially non-human objects and animals - and how naming affects our perceptions and behaviors toward those objects.

He spent a lot of time researching how different subcultures name things - including rock musicians, scientists and Maine lobstermen, because naming tells you a lot about what's going on in a particular culture.  

It turns out that almost all lobstermen think they should name their boats after the women in their lives but more than half of them name their boats with macho names like "Rattlesnake" and the "Rusticator." The perception is not borne out in the reality.

Naming carries a lot of power. Writer Maria Konnikova says we use names as a means of exercising control because we can't stand ambiguity. To label something is to know it, to brand it, to have some control over it. 

But, to name is also to humanize. Michael studied researchers who name the animals they use for research to learn if they anthropomorphize them to a degree that makes their research more difficult and less objective. We talk to one of those researchers who says that yes, we do humanize that which we name. But, in the process, we also humanize ourselves. And, that's a good thing. Mostly.

Humanizing objects can go too far, like when Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2013 Spike Jonze movie, "Her," fell in love with the operating system he named Samantha. Hello Siri, are you there?

Today, we talk about the power of naming. 

Leave your comments below, email us at colin@wnpr.org, tweet us @wnprcolin. Tweet Michael Erard @michaelerard with recommendations for subcultures he should study next.

Colin McEnroe hosted today's show. Chion Wolf was the technical producer. 

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