October 9, 2007 at 8:53 pm in Language
Great little article about word coinage and naming by Steven Pinker in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, How do we come up with words? Here is a morsel, about the viral nature of baby names and the human tendency to want to be different, but not too different:
Many people assume these fads are inspired by celebrities (Marilyn Monroe made Marilyn popular) or social trends (biblical names are popular during religious revivals; androgynous names are a legacy of feminism). But sociologist Stanley Lieberson has pored through naming data and disproved every one of these hypotheses. The cause of baby names is other baby names. Parents have an ear for names that are a bit distinctive (as if to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice not to name your son William because every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William) without being too distinctive (only celebrities can get away with naming their children Moon Unit or Banjo). The trends arise when everyone tries to be moderately distinctive and ends up being moderately distinctive in the same way.
I love that advice from Sam Goldwyn. And that bit about everyone trying to be distinctive but ending up being “moderately distinctive in the same way” reminds me of the clusters of like names we see in nearly every industry. Take SUV names, for instance, where all the automakers tend to promote a “rugged individualist” theme, then serve up the same kind of names for their vehicles, often named to evoke either the idea of exploration — Blazer, Discovery, Expedition, Navigator, Safari, Scout, Tracker, Trooper — or of a mythic rugged western pioneer landscape — Montana, Rainier, Santa Fe, Sequoia, Sonoma, Tacoma, Tahoe, Yukon. So all of you rugged individualists out there looking express your distinctiveness through your choice of ride, these big beasts of cars are betraying that ideal by blending their names in with each other.
Also fascinating in this article is the idea that naming trends cannot be reliably predicted or engineered, because they are dependent upon the behavior of the masses, and that behavior is chaotic:
Pundits often treat a culture as if it were a superorganism that pursues goals and finds meaning, just like a person. But the fortunes of words, a cultural practice par excellence, don’t fit that model. Names change with the times, yet they don’t fulfill needs, don’t reflect other social trends and aren’t driven by role models or Madison Avenue. A “trend” is shorthand for the aggregate effects of millions of people making decisions while anticipating and reacting to the decisions made by others, and these dynamics can be stubbornly chaotic.
This unpredictability holds a lesson for our understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture — every fashion, ritual, common belief — must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, until it becomes endemic to a community. The caprice in names suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for other mores and customs.
Yes. Beware of “expert” opinion that labors to convince you that “scientific” explanations — linguistics, focus groups, trend analysis — trumps good old fashioned meaning, story, history, mythology, poetry, rhythm, and shared knowledge when considering names for companies, products, or services. Anything else is just putting ketchup on a potato bug.
September 30, 2007 at 12:12 pm in Names/Naming
Rob May at Businesspundit is selling his blog, because he doesn’t want to sell out.
I never intended to make money blogging. It just sort of happened, once this blog hit a certain level. It was a nice side income, and has helped fund many of my other projects. But as blogging has become more competitive, and more and more people are trying to make money at it, I have realized that I am not interested in continuing. I have watched Businesspundit slip a little bit each year in the Technorati rankings, and I have realized that I lack a very important attribute of good writers – the ability to say what people want to hear.
This blog has never been about what readers want. It has been about what I want to say. And I know that I am weird and my views are not mainstream at all. People want easy. People want instant. People want to be told that they are right. People want to have their views reaffirmed. I’m a natural contrarian who believes that most trends are overhyped, that most people need more focus and discipline, and that conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Those topics will never be as popular as say… stupid cat pictures.
The overwhelming popularity of LOL Cats should not be surprising, nor should it be viewed as irrelevant nonsense. Were he alive today, Thomas Stearns Eliot would probably laugh out loud, himself. T.S. Eliot’s collection of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, first published in 1939, inspired the ever-popular musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats.
- The Naming of Cats
The Old Gumbie Cat
Growltiger’s Last Stand
The Rum Tum Tugger
The Song of the Jellicles
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer
Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles
Macavity: The Mystery Cat
Gus: The Theatre Cat
Bustopher Jones: The Cat about Town
Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat
The Ad-dressing of Cats
Cat Morgan Introduces Himself
In this essay on T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats, Mary Beth Tinsley elucidates:
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats challenges the usefulness of accepted literary categories—genre, tone, theme—by its tendency to slip out from under their heavy-handed application. With this risk in mind, I shall examine Eliot’s Book as an example of satire, a descendant perhaps of the seventeenth-century “characters,” conveying through the manipulation of perspectives an oblique commentary on human society and its conventions.
Elizabeth Sewell reminds us of Eliot’s debt to the nonsense mode of Lewis Carroll. She sees the Book of Practical Cats as a receptacle for all the “love and charity” excised from Eliot’s serious existential statements—a sort of immersion in the otherwise destructive element, nonsense, as the ultimate way to reach heaven.
We here at Wordlab are huge fans of Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, and Cats of all names. And this blog has always been and will always be about what the reader wants — i can has names?
September 5, 2007 at 9:32 am in Names/Naming
Goodbye, Tutankamen del Sol.
So long, Hengelberth, Maolenin,Kerbert Krishnamerk, Githanjaly, Yornaichel, Nixon and Yurbiladyberth. The prolifically inventive world of Venezuelan baby names may be coming to an end.
If electoral officials here get their way, a bill introduced last week would prohibit Venezuelan parents from bestowing those names — and many, many others — on their children.
The bill’s ambition, according to a draft submitted to municipal offices here for review, is to “preserve the equilibrium and integral development of the child” by preventing parents from giving newborns names that expose them to ridicule or are “extravagant or hard to pronounce in the official language,” Spanish.
The measure would not be retroactive. But it would limit parents of newborns to a list of 100 names established by the government, with exemptions for Indians and foreigners, and it is already facing skepticism in the halls of the National Assembly.
August 29, 2007 at 10:30 pm in Names/Naming
“We wanted a name that meant something,” said Jeff Sharlein, a social worker. “In many ways we are unconventional and our families see this as an unconventional choice.”
More people than ever before are looking for unique ways to express their identity, according to Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of the “Baby Name Bible.” Her dictionary documents 50,000 names from nouns or colors or even video game characters. “Statistically, fewer and fewer people are using one of the Top 10 names,” she said.
“Everybody is looking for a name that has a lot of personal meaning,” said Satran, who took her husband’s name, but keeps her maiden name as a middle name. “It’s the conscious power of branding and leads people to appropriate a name in a different way. You are not just stuck with and limited to the usual suspects.”
In both first names and surnames, couples now have the freedom to “search and choose the name that really feels like you and really stands for the individual you think you are,” said Satran. “It embodies values, history and image. Naming your family is not unlike naming a company.”
The preceding message was brought to you by Quark Savage…
August 25, 2007 at 11:07 am in Slang
This item from today’s New York Times “What’s Online” column, Click if You Read This Column:
Saving Your Bacn Over the last week, a new Web 2.0 buzzword was born: “bacn.” Bacn is not spam; rather, it refers to messages — e-mail newsletters, Facebook friend requests, Twitter updates and the like — that are wanted but not needed. “Notifications you want. But not right now,” is the blogger Andy Quayle’s succinct definition (techburgh.com).
By most accounts, the term was coined — or at least gained traction — during last weekend’s PodCamp Pittsburgh event (podcamppittsburgh.com).
On his blog, Eric Skiff offers possible solutions, which amount to smart e-mail filtering and personal discipline. “Once or twice a day while I’m taking a ‘brain break’ I’ll flip through my labels and take care of any pending friend requests, comments, and any other bacn that’s come in during the day,” he writes (glitchnyc.com).
Already, a Web site, bacn2.com, has appeared to help “spread awareness” of bacn and to help people cope.
As bacn proliferates, it will likely become the new spam, making the whole idea of “bringing home the bacn” much less appealing.
Jay here, AKA snark. I have been working on this website portfolio of my language-based artwork for several years now, and while I have many more images to add, I decided finally to make it public and see what happens.
And of course there’s a blog where I can ramble even more erratically.