The naming of nature

There are reasons to be careful about naming. Names confer power and suggest ownership, and the naming of things in line with the dominant thought form of the day is something to watch for. As an example, names made up to sound like Latin by people who self identify as scientists are considered to be the proper names, while names used by ordinary people interacting with that same thing for hundreds of years and more, are given no authority at all.

However, naming does not have to be an act of conquest. When we have a name for something, it’s easier to keep track of our relationship with it. We can piece together stories of different encounters and interactions. Knowledge gained can be easily attached to that name, and the thing itself is more readily discussed for being able to identify it to other people.

Names themselves often reveal fragments of story, history or relics of older languages. Place names especially so, where ghosts of former names can be present in new descriptions. Much older naming was descriptive – one of the interesting problems this causes in flower names is that pink and orange are much more recent ideas, so a great many folk names for plants designate as red things which, to the modern eye, just plain aren’t. And if the name and the colour are interchangeable – as with the violet, a sub species that doesn’t conform causes all kinds of trouble, and thus we get white violets.

Folk naming outside of Europe gets even more interesting, because often things are named based on resemblance to other things in the country of origin. Or, more accurately, the memory of those things. American robins are a mostly brown bird with a red (orange really) chest like their British counterparts, only in all other ways look a lot more like a thrush, including their size, and have a migratory habit that the old world robin does not.

To have a name, is to have the beginnings of a story and the means for a relationship. Otherwise it all gets confusing. In a far country, there was a piece of land where the plants only grew a foot or so in height because grazing creatures liked to eat them. And amongst those foot high plants of the distant country, there was one which was darker coloured than all the rest, and while it wasn’t the only one to have little pointy bits on its middle, it was the only one popular with a brown and red night flying creature that liked to feed on it. And while that might sound entertaining and exotic for a while, you at present have no idea if you know what either the plant or the creature are, or whether I made them up, which is no great aid to communication!


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “The naming of nature

  • landisvance

    I had not thought of names as opening doors for relationship! Excellent!

  • Catriona McDonald

    My five-year-old son and I were just having a similar discussion about names. It was inspired by a passage in a wonderful children’s book called “Augie and the Green Knight,” which is a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but with a precocious nine-year-old girl instead of Sir Gawain.

    The Green Knight asks Augie what the name of the certain flower is, and she with great pride replies Ranunculus bulbosus. And his reply is, “No, that flower’s name is Frank.” Augie eventually, after much arguing, concludes that this sort of naming system makes sense if you’re dealing with something as an individual. It would, after all, be silly to refer to one’s friends and associates as “human,” rather than their given names.

  • lornasmithers

    Names are so important… I read somewhere the more names a plant has the more sacred it is… possibly because it has more healing properties and / or stories?

    One might say that about a place- the amount of stories woven about it can be an indicator of is sacredness (in our eyes anyhow) although of course there are so many enchanted and hidden unstoried places…

  • treegod

    In studying Ecopsychology, I’ve learnt that verbalising my experience is an important tool, something that stops my experience from slipping into obscurity and anonimity. By giving it a label we can access that experience and have confidence that that experience is something real and important. I like what you say: “Knowledge gained can be easily attached to that name, and the thing itself is more readily discussed for being able to identify it to other people.”

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