14 July 2004

Magic words

The anonymous verses that are passed down from one child to another often seem trivial if not irrational, but some of them are full of meaning. They are more than just a kind of primitive art: they are also primitive magic. Children are ritualists; they believe in the power of certain gestures and words. Oaths and promises are binding: charms influence events; counting-out rhymes call upon the powers of fate. Even the simplest verse can have an almost magical effect. The child who is taunted with the rhyme "April fool's gone past / You're the biggest fool at last" may - as I know from experience - feel contaminated with stupidity until he or she has shouted back the magical counterspell: "Sticks and stones / May break my bones / But words will never hurt me."

From 'Poetry by and for Children' in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

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13 March 2004

Borrowing words

'Pod?'

'Yes, even their names were never quite right. They imagined they had their own names - quite different from human names - but with half an ear you could tell they were borrowed. Even Uncle Hendreary's and Eggletina's. Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all. Nothing. In spite of this, my brother said, they were touchy and conceited and thought they owned the world.''

From The Borrowers. Etymology is the study of word borrowing. So too is HP Labs' Implicit Structure and the Dynamics of Blogspace

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06 January 2004

Safe names

An amusing editorial by Alex O'Connell in today's Times argues that 'today’s safe baby names are born of scared parents':

So why are we making such insipid choices? For truly we are: the rest of the Office of National Statistics’ line-up reads like an index of characters in a Victorian novel... There is a surge in revivalist names: Ellie, Sophie and Lucy all make the girls’ Top Ten and Joshua, Thomas, and James the boys’. With Ella and Harry present and correct, it’s all gone terribly Milly-Molly-Mandy.

Names reveal a lot, not about their bearer but the hopes and fears of their parents. That those women on maternity wards in the 21st century are harking back to the 19th shows that they want to protect their young from something in the modern age. Parents, scared by documentaries about ten-year-old car-jackers, think that if they call their poppets Samuel (No 8) or Molly (No 19) they will enjoy midnight feasts rather than re-enact Grand Theft Auto III.

See also: Names on Radio 4's Woman's Hour
Plus: Danny O'Brien's meditation on the naming of Ada, in which he identifies an emergent naming standard: [Normal] [Weird] [FamilyName]

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30 December 2003

Naming isn't knowing

…so it ended up that the other fathers had to take their children for walks the next weekend, and the next Monday when they were all back to work, all the kids were playing in the field and one kid said to me, “See that bird, what kind of bird is that?” And I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush,” or something, “Your father doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown-throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a … in Italian a …,” he says “in Chinese it’s a …, in Japanese a…,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’re finished with all of that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

From Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (read to me by Matt)

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09 December 2003

Nine billion names of god

"This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuries -- since the lamasery was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your way of thought, so I hope you will listen with an open mind while I explain it."

"Naturally."

"It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God."

"I beg your pardon?"

"We have reason to believe," continued the lama imperturbably, "that all such names can be written with not more than nine letters in an alphabet we have devised."

"And you have been doing this for three centuries?"

"Yes. We expected it would take us about fifteen thousand years to complete the task."

"Oh." Dr. Wagner looked a little dazed. "Now I see why you wanted to hire one of our machines. But exactly what is the purpose of this project?"

The lama hesitated for a fraction of a second, and Wagner wondered if he had offended him. If so, there was no trace of annoyance in the reply.

"Call it ritual, if you like, but it’s a fundamental part of our belief. All the many names of the Supreme Being -- God, Jehovah, Allah, and so on -- they are only man-made labels. There is a philosophical problem of some difficulty here, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all the possible combinations of letters, which can occur, are what one may call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all."

From Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God (thanks Bryan)

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08 December 2003

Personal names tabooed

Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage [sic] commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person...

Many savages at the present day regard their names as vital parts of themselves, and therefore take great pains to conceal their real names, lest these should give to evil-disposed persons a handle by which to injure their owners...

Amongst the tribes of Central Australia every man, woman and child has, besides a personal name which is in common use, a secret or sacred name which is bestowed by the older men upon him or her soon after birth, and which is known to none but the fully initiated members of the group. The secret name is never mentioned except upon the most solemn occasions; to utter it in the hearing of women or of men of another group would be a most serious breach of tribal custom, as serious as the most flagrant case of sacrilege among ourselves. When mentioned at all, the name is spoken only in a whisper, and not until the most elaborate precautions have been taken...

From James Frazer's The Golden Bough (originally published in 1922)

The reporting of identity theft frequently refers to an unspecified non-financial or emotional harm, and victims often talk of feelings of personal violation. I can't help but think that this relates in some way to a persistent taboo on names.

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Stolen names

After Chihiro signed her name, the contract glided back into Yubaba's hand. "So your name's Chihiro? What a pretty name."

Yubaba then placed her hand over her name. The characters of her name floated upward. Yubaba wrapped her fingers around them. "From now on, your name is Sen."

...

Outside, Chihiro crouched down. Haku returned her clothes. "Hide them. You'll need them to get home."

She found something in her clothes. "My goodbye card's still here..."

Chihiro stared at the card. "Ch-hi-ro... That's my name, isn't it!"

She couldn't believe she had forgotten her name. "That's how Yubaba controls you, by stealing your name. So hold on to that card. Keep it hidden. And while you're here, you must call yourself Sen."

"I can't believe I forgot my name. She almost took it from me."

"If you completely forget it, you'll never find your way home. I've tried everything to remember mine."

From Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away Picture Book

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Unidentified persons

The National Missing Persons Helpline has launched an unidentified persons database of faces and descriptions:

A person who is unidentified, whether alive or deceased, is often also a missing person. Until the name of that person has been established, their family and friends will not know what has happened to them. In the case of a murder where the victim's identity is unknown, it is very hard for the enquiry to move forward until the victim has a name.

They also introduce some of their identification and reconstruction services - age progression, image enhancement and facial reconstruction.

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30 October 2003

Rumpelstiltskin

"I will give you three days," he declared. "If by then you can guess my name, you can keep your child."

All night long the queen racked her brains, thinking of all the names she had ever heard. She dispatched a messenger to inquire throughout the land if there were any names she had forgotten. When the little man returned the next day, she began with Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar and recited every single name she had ever heard. But at each one the little man said: "that's not my name."

The next day she sent the messenger out to inquire about the names of all the people in the neighbourhood, and she tried out the most unusal and bizarre names on the little man: "Do you happen to be called Ribfiend or Muttonchops or Spindleshanks?" But each time he replied: "That's not my name."

On the third day the messenger returned and said: "I couldn't find a single new name, but when I rounded a bend in the forset at the foot of a huge mountain, a place so remote that the foces and hares bid each other goodnight, I came across a little hut. A fire was burning right in front of the hut, and a really strange little man was dancing around the fire, hopping on one foot and chanting:

'Tomorrow I brew, today I bake,
Soon the child is mine to take.
Oh what luck to win this game,
Rumpelstiltskin is my name.'"

You can imagine how happy the queen was to hear that name. The little man returned and asked: "Well, Your Majesty, who am I?"

The Queen replied: 'Is your name Conrad?"
"No, it's not."
"Is your name Harry?"
"No, it's not."
"Could your name possibly be Rumpelstilstkin?"
"The Devil told you that, the Devil told you!" the little man screamed, and in his rage he stamped his right foot so hard that it went into the ground right up to his aist. Then in his fury he seized his left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.

From Rumpelstiltskin, in Maria Tatar's The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales

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01 September 2003

Alan Smithee

Thanks to Matt for introducing me to 'Alan Smithee':

The Directors Guild contract generally does not permit a director to remove her/his name from films. The Directors Guild has been striving for decades to establish the director as the "author" of a film, and part of getting the credit for the successes is taking the blame for the failures. The only exceptions they make are cases in which a film was clearly taken away from a director and recut heavily against her/his wishes in ways that completely altered the film. Directors are required to appeal to the Guild in such cases. If the appeal is successful, their name is replaced by Alan Smithee. That is the only permissible pseudonym for a director. So if you notice a film directed by Alan Smithee, it is certain it is not what its director intended, and likely that it is not any good...

Directors are still allowed to use other pseudonyms, as are authors, but that pseudonym, such as those used by Nathan Juran and David de Cocteau, are theirs, and a method of detachment rather than disownership.

Defined by The Internet Movie Database

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