Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Nominibus suis

I was never any good at naming things. My childhood toys bore such imaginative monikers as "Teddy." One rust-coloured bear went by the it-sounds-slightly-more-like-a-real name "Rusty," but even then, though I'd had him from birth, the name wasn't fixed till a good ten years on.

When I was 7, my sister brought home a kitten. Apparently she tried out the prog-rock-inspired handle Talybont (I only learned of this in recent years). But I, and the rest of the family and neighbours, so easily swayed by a 7-year-old's pronouncements, knew him as Blacky.

(I might've been 6. Blacky came to an early and tragic end, news of which was delivered to our door by a neighbour, while we were waiting for our pizza (what a treat!) to arrive.)

When I was 25 another black kitten came into my life. While I aspired to something more evocative than "Blacky," weeks passed before anything stuck. Still, many consider naming a pet for a favourite author precious.

Cat number 2 (Blur reference aside, not her real name) was adopted from the Humane Society. Fortunately, she already had a name, even if it is kind of stupid.

Arguably, the naming of my child was an exception amid my sorry history. However, while Helena's name had been "chosen" weeks beforehand, I fought committing it to paper for days after her birth. I was waiting to know that it suited her, looking for a sign of confirmation from her that she liked it, that it spoke to her essence.

I'm not comfortable with naming Helena's toys. My track record provides ample enough reason for me to shy away from this responsibility. And I do see it as a responsibility. They're her toys after all — it's her right to designate the essential.

Many stuffed toys come pre-named these days. Only rarely do name and object feel like a proper match. Peanut the teddybear is one of these rarities. For some reason, only the giraffe who awaited Helena's arrival and the elephant who showed up later readily gave up their sewn-in labels to become, respectively, Ginger and Fred (named — by me! — without thought for their pairing, but it's a happy fit). All the others are blank slates.

I wonder how christenings transpire in other households. Is it a parent's spontanous blurt? Is it a child's naive babble? Do families consult on the matter?

Umberto Eco in The Search for the Perfect Language:
'Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them'. The interpretation of this passage is an extremely delicate matter. Clearly we are here in the presence of a motif, common to other religions and mythologies — that of the nomothete, the name-giver, the creator of language. Yet it is not at all clear on what basis Adam actually chose the names he gave to the animals. The version in the Vulgate, the source for European culture's understaning of the passage, does little to resolve this mystery. The Vulgate has Adam calling the vaious animals 'nominibus suis', which we can only translate, 'by their own names'. The King James version does not help us any more: 'Whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.' But Adam might have called the animals 'by their own names' in two senses. Either he gave them the names that, by some extra-linguistic right, were already due to them, or he gave them those names we still use on the basis of a convention initiated by Adam. In other words, the names that Adam gave the animals are either the names that each animal intinsically ought to have been given, or simply the names that the nomothete arbitrarily and ad placitum decided to give to them.

Which is it?

I've asked Helena about her creature's names. She shows as much creativity as I ever did. Her cheval is Horsey, one chien is Puppy. Her dolls, all of them, are Lala (which is the Polish word for, you guessed it, "doll"). They have temperaments and preferences, individual routines and distinct styles, but no names.

At long last, I am pleased to announce that Helena, after much deliberation on the dozens of suggestions proferred by J-F and myself, has named two of her toys. Over the course of the first day, they switched identities a few times, but in the last week they have become firmly established. The bear and the (space!) dog: respectively, Tolstoy and Buzz.
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