In the beginning, there were names - names of people, of things, of feelings, of places.... It seems that my life as an ESL instructor is all about teaching "names" for everything, and even though my students and I seem to agree on the meaning of the names, when the "names" or words get translated, they often take on other meanings.
Recently, I've become very focused on vocabulary - which is basically "names" for everything we sense or experience in our lives. We think that there is a word in every language for the things that all people experience, yet it differs depending on the culture.
I've been fascinated for some time with names because people get very attached to them, and it matters very much what something is called. There are some recent examples of names that have created world political tensions. Take the case of the Sea of Japan vs. the East Sea. Why does it matter so much what we call this place?
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, "the Sea of Japan is the only internationally established name for the sea area concerned." The Japanese govenment suggests that if they compromise by accepting a second name for the same sea, "...the confusion would necessarily have an adverse effect on the safety of international maritime traffic." In this way, they are emphatic about keeping "the Sea of Japan" as the only name for this body of water. The South Koreans (Republic of Korea = ROK), on the other hand, argue that "East Sea has been used continuously for the past 2000 years."
Recently, yahoo.com news reported a problem with a clothing store's name in India. Apparently, the owner of the store has branded his clothing with the name Hitler and a swastika. He claims that he didn't know anything about the history of Hitler. In fact, the grandfather of his business partner is nicknamed "Hitler" because of his strictness. Because Mr Shah has invested a significant sum of money in labeling his store and its merchandise, he says he'll only change the name if he's given compensation for re-branding the clothing.
Many English speakers know the famous Shakespeare saying from Romeo and Juliet: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." We use the saying to mean that the name of a thing isn't as important as what it IS. However, looking at news stories around the world, that certainly doesn't seem to be the consensus.
I recall being told when I was a child that "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you." Hah! Was that something that my parents said to me so that I wouldn't get in a physical fight over "hurtful words"? Because of my own experiences, which disproved the saying, I never used it on my own children. In fact, many psychologists will probably agree that children recover from broken bones and bruises, but words meant to put them down and spoken by parents, teachers, friends, and strangers can leave an indelible mark on their memories. Words can haunt and hurt for decades, sometimes for life.
There's much more to say about names that comes from psycholinguistics and cognitive science. Have you ever wondered if the word we use for a thing is based on some characteristic, such as the shape, of that thing. Read this if you want to explore that thought. Can we use this knowledge about words and shapes to help teach our students or ourselves to more easily remember vocabulary?