What’s In a Name (That I Don’t Immediately Forget)

Names are messy. I for one am terrible with names. If I don’t take the sincere and focused mental effort the moment I hear it, it’s gone. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the person. I’m just detrimentally bad at remembering names.

Which is a problem because names are important. Not just personal names either, but the overarching concept of a name. Names are how we detail the world around us. They carry meanings, connotations, connections. They link the world together and detail our experiences. Names are simultaneously how we describe and how we perceive our world.

And I’m awful at them. Vocabulary or people’s names, none are spared. I learn and then forget.

This behavior extends to my own identifier. My name was a toss up when I was born, plucked from a list because it was the least hippy-ish and the most likely of the suggestions to not deny me a job interview when I was older. I will forever be grateful to not be “Sunflower.”

Since moving to China, I’ve gone through 4 nicknames. Two in the city I live in, one in Shanghai, and the first in Beijing. After some time, my brain adjusted. My head pops up now regardless of which version of my self is called upon, and make no mistake, each nickname holds dominance over a different version of myself.

Which brings us back to names. Who I am, both in my own mind and in the mind of whoever called whichever nickname, is a different person. The differences are subtle, but they’re there. Miss Anne is a very different person from Cheyenne who is different from Red.

What we call something alters our perception of it.

Think of a platypus. Swimming around. Looking weird, if not a little boring and maybe even cute. Weird duckbill. Long tail. Etc.

Now think of a monster, water duck (aka what my Chinese students initially called a platypus.) A. Monster. Water. Duck. It’s accurate AND horrifying. It’s perfectly descriptive, and I haven’t trusted platypuses since.

To my students, this made perfect sense. They nodded in agreement at the one student who explained it this way. Of course that’s what it was. What else could English speakers, in their rationality, have called that animal?

Learning a second language highlights the oddness in your own and the practicality in the other. It also brings you to bear with the way your names and the way you identify what is around you affects the way you perceive it. The reality that under another language with different names and different identities, your world would be fundamentally different, comes into harsh relief.

My world was dependent on the English centered internal monologue running rampant and ceaselessly through my mind. It now shares a space with a Mandarin voice. The two fight for dominance. They argue over phrasing and word structure. They debate the importance of one part over the other and which should go first. They alter the way I arrange the world and thus how I see it.

All language does this. It uses word order to stress connections and importance. It ties together root words to pinpoint the growth of a concept. Names aren’t just our way of detailing the world to each other; they’re how we detail ourselves. It’s why writers spend months looking for the perfect name for their characters. It’s why parents agonize over baby names, buying entire books filled with nothing but potential options.

It’s important and we recognize that importance. Our names say something about us, and, when we name the items in our lives, it says something about how we perceive them.

It’s why we have bathrooms and bedrooms instead of toilet rooms and dresser rooms. Because those weren’t what mattered to us in those places. They weren’t what we wanted to focus on.

The way you label your world changes what’s in it. Choose carefully.

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