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106: Names

/1570204Graham.pdf”>The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics (Loren Graham)
The Power and Mystery of Naming Things (NPR)
The Power of Names (The New Yorker)
The Uncertainty Principle (Wikipedia)


Full episode text

In physics, the observer effect states that the mere act of observing a phenomenon will change, even if only in a minute way, the effect being observed. It’s an effect often confused with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but when it comes to language, that’s actually a confusion that I love.

After all, part of the mythos – and impact – of naming something can be argued to have an impact on the thing being named, while the Heisenberg principle names a fundamental feature of all wave-like systems.

And with language, both are true. A fundamental feature and nature of language is that it has an impact. The observer effect comes into play in that the choice of language, and the structure of the internal reality of the individuals both using and hearing that language, changes the nature of that which is being named.

In a New Yorker article, author Adam Alter outlines how research has shown that the names and language used for something can change stock prices, the likelihood a female will be named a judge, and even the quote-unquote facts of an eyewitness account to a vehicular accident.

Religions around the world have recognized this power of naming, and the very creative power of naming. In the Bible, for example, it is in the act of naming “light” that creates light. And giving humans “dominion” over the animals begins with giving Adam the responsibility and right to name all of those animals.

Naming is a method of asserting domination, of a sort, over another. Giving something a name is powerful – as Loren Graham points out in his paper, it was only when mathematical concepts were named that mathematics in general were able to accept them and begin investigating the concepts further.

Naming is also a way of taking away power. In the story of Rumplestiltskin, it was only when the mother learned the villain’s name she was able to take away his power. In the Harry Potter saga, the name Voldemort was so feared that nobody could say it, which maintained the legend’s power. Yet it was when Harry was able to start saying the name was the fight truly on.

And in an episode of “This I Believe” for NPR, the creator of the Vagina monologues points to the naming of that one body part as a way of reclaiming her power over her own body and experience, taking dominion over that which was already hers.