Naming of the names

“Names, names, the naming of the names. What’s this? What’s that? they ask me, pointing to this bush, that bush. I give my standard response: ‘What it is, ma’am, no one knows; but men call it – creosote bush.'” ~ Edward Abbey, A Colorado River Journal

Bobby, Violet, Franz. These are some of the names some people have been assigning to local animals. The first two have been imposed on red-tailed hawks nesting on the otherwise morbid Bobst Library at NYU (designed by Nazi-fanboy Philip Johnson, named after a megabucks enabler of Nixon, and sadly infamous for its undergraduate suicides). The third is one blog’s choice for a seal who has been hanging around Sheepshead Bay.

Mea culpa! In these posts, I call them by the “common names” we have given them. I state their “scientific names,” the so-called universal (but it isn’t understood by the object of naming), so that we can all be on the same screen. Yet I am uneasy about the convention. I think of it as pedagogical, an excuse that has covered many a sin in the past. How else would we identify something?

That said, I draw the line at cute pet names. These really get my goat (yes, this was a conscious decision to use one of our many animal metaphors; curious how language alone remains animistic). For these wild things aren’t our pets; they’re not our companions; they’re not our friends. They’re not OURS at all. Disneyfication be damned, let them be wild, untamed by a name.

But that’s what we do, isn’t it, impose ourselves on everything? We’ve done it to the world: from all the radiation poured into the atmosphere through nuclear testing to the barren seafloors left behind by trawlers; from orbiting space garbage to maelstroms of plastic in the oceans. Above all, we’ve done it to the very climate itself, transforming it via the heedless burning of carbon, the bonfires of civilization’s auto-de-fe. By what right?

Giving cute little pet names to wild animals is a piece of the mad presumption that has transformed this world like no other life-form on it, ever. I wish people would look — that is, think — before they label.

Mammal, mammal
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog
The fox, the ox
Giraffe and shrew
Echidna, caribou
“Mammal” ~ They Might Be Giants

5 Responses to “Naming of the names”


  1. 2 Sara k. April 13, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Whoa! Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning! Not that I don’t enjoy a good rant, even if I don’t entirely agree.

    • 3 mthew April 13, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Actually, I wrote this last week and have fiddled with it since, so it’s pretty tame. The seal/red-tail combo of last Thursday was what put me over the edge, although these thoughts have been simmering for quite some time. Reading John Fowles’ The Tree coalesced and focused some of these thoughts; he also had a version of that meaty Abbey quote (which I gather Abbey retailed more than once).


  1. 1 Ouroboros « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on March 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm
  2. 2 Unreal Nature | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on March 16, 2014 at 7:57 am

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