Skip to main content
Classical Christian Movement

“What’s in a Name?”

By January 1, 2016March 22nd, 2023No Comments

All education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals.”

— Richard Weaver Ideas Have Consequences

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We know what Shakespeare was getting at here, but it’s worth noting that if the rose didn’t have a name, he wouldn’t have been able to say this. I’m quite sure he’s not recommending we’d be better off as a society of mutes with heightened olfactory sensibilities. Names are important; things need names so that we can think and communicate clearly and accurately.

Naming things involves making distinctions; it requires discernment and understanding. Adam’s vice- regency over God’s Creation was intellectual and moral as well as physical, explains Patrick Henry Reardon in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of Touchstone. God charged Adam with naming the animals He brought before him by exercising his ability to distinguish the differences among all the kinds that God had created. “Adam thus became mankind’s first cataloguist, the father of scientific and analytical study, the very founder of philosophy,” states Reardon.

There are those in modern culture who have an aversion to the naming and labeling of things. As Michael Hintze explained in a talk to our school’s faculty, these people see labelers as arrogant; the labeler “by labeling things seems to be setting a distance between them and himself and, worse, seems by naming them to be marking them as a possession…as though nature existed primarily in relation to man, as though nature were made for man, as though man the namer were somehow the master, and not simply a fellow ingredient in the Great Soup.” God gave man dominion over all that He had made. Fallen man can and certainly does abuse that dominion, but making proper distinctions and naming things rightly is not a form of abuse. …to recognize kinds and classes and singularities, to distinguish essence from attributes, and general from particular, to name in the image of God who separated light from darkness and labeled the light, ‘Day’, and the darkness, ‘Night’, to name, as the descendants of Adam who in his holiness named the beasts that were presented to him—whether we name the speed of light or the organs of bodies or even a thing so profound as the nature of a noun—to name is to know and to know the works of God… Our work as teachers is to a great extent the work of presenting things to our students and helping them to learn to name these things rightly and then to remember those names. In classical mythology the goddess Mnemosyne (Memory) was responsible for the naming of things. When we teach the art of grammar we are providing students with language for naming and remembering all that they see in the world around them. More is involved here than merely remembering words. “A word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself,” says Stratford Caldecott in his glorious book on the trivium, Beauty in the Word. He goes on, “Through language we demonstrate and activate our humanity, and channel the faculties of memory, imagination, and thought.”

Learning to name the kinds of words we use helps us to see how language works to communicate clearly about both visible and invisible realities. For instance, nouns name the substance of things while adjectives name the qualities of things. I love how J.R.R. Tolkien talks about adjectives in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He explains how our use of adjectives reveals the ability of the human mind for abstraction, for seeing qualities as apart from objects.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green- grass, discriminating it from other things, but sees that it is green as well as grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Fairie is more potent. And that is not surprising; such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythological grammar. The mind that thought of ‘light’, ‘heavy’, ‘grey’, ‘yellow’, ‘still’, ‘swift’, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and still rock into swift water…in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, a new form is made; Fairie begins: Man becomes a sub-creator.
Our ability to name qualities and play with them in stories is a mark of our being made in the image of the Creator of all things.

Cut off from this understanding modern culture is busy finding ways to do away with our need for words. Communication could be so much more efficient if there were fewer words and those words and what they denote were reduced either to images or abbreviations. Emoticons and acronyms take the work out of communication and speed it up. C.S. Lewis writes in the introduction to his book Studies in Words of the danger of verbicide, the killing of words. Words are necessary to keep ideas alive. When we kill words by overuse or misuse, we alter people’s ways of thinking. In his essay “The Death of Words” Lewis
says, “To save any word from the eulogistic or dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language…When you have killed a word, you have blotted from the human mind the thing the word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think about what they have forgotten how to say.” Lewis perhaps did not imagine that now fifty years later we would need to also be working against the disuse of words!

Evidence for this killing of words can be found in the clever obituary by Ann Wroe carried in the Dec 2015 issue of The Economist and entitled “Elegy for lost verbiage.” The obituary is a response to the news that 153 difficult words will be dropped from the 2016 edition of the SAT tests. In this piece, which uses all 153 words, the words have gathered for a farewell party. Here’s an excerpt (The soon-to-be-dead words are italicized.):

This was not, he knew, a gathering to cajole, carouse, or cavort, let alone a licentious debauch. Instead, it was a maudlin occasion, at which a dirge might well be sung and a knell tolled. The guests were there to mark their disappearance from the consciousness of most American schoolchildren, who would no longer be exhorted and admonished to remember the lot of them for their SAT exams, and upbraided when they couldn’t. For it was an incontrovertible fact that these onerous, grandiloquent, idiosyncratic words were the bane of many young lives, inimical to summer and fun. Instead of indulging the serendipity of youth, fishing, swimming and hitting balls through windows, pupils were subjugated to the dogmatic and arbitrary yoke of spending days with dictionaries.

Classical education is decidedly non-modern in that it is logocentric. It begins with the three language arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and it involves learning to name and thus understand rightly across the curriculum. As teachers in classical schools we serve as custodians of language attempting to carry out what David Hicks calls “the beloved and arduous task of the schoolmaster— showing how words disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of the transient world.”