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What’s in a name?

Updated Thursday, 5th June 2014
The way in which we use names can influence perception and behaviour without us realising.

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 A blank name badge hanging out of a jeans pocket

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
(Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

Juliet famously pondered this question on her balcony one evening suggesting (or hoping?) that Romeo is not any less worthy of her love for being called Montague. Yet just as in Shakespeare’s play the name turned out to matter after all, what you call something is, for better or worse, highly significant.

You might have heard the phrase: ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’. Although fast becoming a cliché, this illustrates my point perfectly. The very same individual doing the very same things can be called two things that have very different connotations and associations. This is as true in the ‘real world’ as it is in literature.

Considering for example an incident that happens all too frequently: a crime occurs and police officers are looking for a particular suspect. That’s about as neutral as I could phrase that sentence and yet the linguistic choices I made still tell you something about the people involved. Both the police officers and the suspect are referred to in a way that categorises them: by their job or by their role in the particular incident. If I had said ‘police officers are looking for Joe Bloggs’, Mr. Bloggs' role in the crime would have been left ambiguous. Of course, it could have gone the other way too: I could have said: ‘police officers are looking for Joe Bloggs, the violent criminal’. By referring to Joe Bloggs as a ‘violent criminal’ I have highlighted an aspect of his past which, although it may or may not be objectively relevant to the incident at hand, influences how you interpret the situation. You are probably likely to think that the violent criminal is a suspect rather than a witness, for example. You might even be more likely to think that he’ll turn out to be guilty.

With colleagues, I once did some linguistic analysis for a large UK-based NGO. The NGO wanted to find out whether the way they represented the people they were helping was appropriate for their purposes. In the process of this analysis we discovered (to everyone’s surprise) that there was a consistent difference between the way men and women were being represented. When the NGO’s leaflets and letters talked about the stories of people they had helped, they included pictures and captions of the individuals. When the individuals were men, their complete name tended to be included in the caption. When the story’s protagonist was a woman, the caption often only included her first name. This contrast implied a status difference between men (higher status) and women (lower status) that was definitely not in line with the NGO’s aims. In and of itself, referring to women (or men) by their first name only is neither good nor bad. But the context within which it is done and how it compares with references to other genders, ethnic groups, ages etc. makes the choice meaningful and significant.

Perhaps a useful final example here would be my own use of naming in the previous paragraph. You’ll notice that I consistently referred to the institution that commissioned the analysis as an NGO. This is quite a high level descriptor: I’m using the sector that it operates in to stand for the company itself. Not only that, but I am also using the sector that it operates in to figuratively stand for the people who actually work there: “The NGO wanted to find out...” This collectivises (lumps together) and impersonalises both institutions and individuals. What am I implying with these choices? On the one hand this was a practical choice as I did not wish to name the particular NGO in question – a matter of courtesy, if you will. On the other hand, it is also true that the names of the NGO or the specific individuals who commissioned our study are not relevant to the point I was trying to make. As you can see, there might well be innocent and/practical reasons for the linguistic choices you make.

The point in all of this is, what you call someone or something is a matter of choice. It is a choice indicative of attitudes and shaped by circumstances, and it is a choice that influences perceptions and behaviours.


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