The Naming of Things

Names carry power. I’m not talking about the mystical notion of power, but rather social and educational power.

Names are social in nature. The same name can have different meanings or connotations based on culture and language.  Names are a way for us to form mental, and sometimes emotional, connections to people and things. When I learn a person’s name, and use it, it strengthens our relationship. For people we are really close to, we might bestow nicknames or pet-names. I served for several years in the Air Force where there is a culture of bestowing call signs (nicknames) based on stupid or special things that people have done. Knowing their call sign told me a little bit more about who they were.

modern "tree of life" (image: Nature.com)
modern “tree of life” (image: Nature.com)

We humans like to try to put the order into the world. We create categories and schemas to make sense of the chaos around us. Names are part of that order. Give me a name and I immediately have a frame of reference for what type of thing we are discussing and its characteristics or functions. We even go so far as to have an entire branch of science dedicated to the naming and ordering of things found in the natural world.

Part of the joy of discovery, for me, is the joy of learning the name of a thing I have seen so many times but didn’t know what to call it. Growing up in Oregon, I am very familiar with the plants and animals that are typical to Pacific Northwest forests. However, I had no names for them while growing up. I made up my own- names like Nature’s Toilet Paper (Thimbleberry), Spiny Plant (Devil’s Club), or Climbing Tree (Douglas Fir). However, I couldn’t use these names to communicate with other people. It wasn’t until I began learning the names that I could not only talk about them, but also learn about what made these organisms unique and how they fit within their given ecosystem.

Douglas Firs (image: Wikimedia.org)
Douglas Firs (image: Wikimedia.org)
Devil's Club (image: Wikimedia.org)
Devil’s Club (image: Wikimedia.org)

Over the summer, we began to learn about ecosystems that are unique to the Siskiyou region. In the process we were introduced to such places as “fens” or “chaparral” and along with them, we learned about the plants and animals that make each place unique. This is important because we will need to pass these names on to the children we’ll teach next year during fall in the field. The point isn’t just to make sure our students gain knowledge. Rather, it’s that without a name, our students will be less able to connect with the natural world they are experiencing. They will be unable to retain the important information about that mushroom or bird’s unique function if they don’t have a name to attach it to. Most importantly, the names we provide our students will create a framework that will allow them to know this place they call home and to actually care about it.

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