Nominal Authority

"So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name." - Genesis 2:19

THE year just past may be remembered as anticlimactic from a millennial perspective, but it was an epochal year in the history of names. I am not referring to the decision last summer by Binney & Smith to replace the name indian red with the name chestnut on its reddish-brown Crayola crayon, although that decision was certainly noteworthy. The company acted after receiving complaints from people who believed that the word "indian" was a reference to Native American skin color. (It is actually a reference to a pigment found in India.) This was not the first time Crayola crayons had encountered name problems. In 1962 Binney & Smith gave the name peach to the crayon formerly known as flesh. A few years earlier it had given the name midnight blue to the crayon formerly known as prussian blue, on the grounds that no one knew any longer what Prussia was. I won't be surprised if some of the crayons still found in Crayola's 120-color pack run into opposition. Two bear the names of endangered species (manatee, timberwolf). Another (atomic tangerine) seems to scoff at public concern over food irradiation.

The truly big news in 1999 involving names was the breakup of the monopoly on the assignment of domain names on the Internet. As is widely known, a company called Network Solutions enjoyed the lucrative right to approve and register all Internet addresses ending with the suffixes ".com," ".net," and ".org." Network Solutions received a $35 annual fee from each registrant. A new oversight board has now extended the right of registration to many more companies. In 1992 only about 7,000 registered domain names existed. Now there are more than six million, and the number is growing by 70,000 a week.

No one is quite sure of the implications. Entrepreneurs known as cybersquatters have eagerly bought up domain names that they hope eventually to sell for large sums -- generic names like drugs.com and porno.com, but also names of companies and people. In the first half of 1999, according to a tally made by Enterprise IG, a company that specializes in "identity consulting," more American corporations changed their names than in any other six-month period, prompted in part by an urge to acquire some Internet cachet. One thing is certain: we are in the midst of the largest outbreak of new names in history.

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The early chapters of the Book of Genesis amount to a catalogue of arrangements that didn't quite work out (sinlessness, immortality, painless childbirth, the zero-hour work week). But one reality that survives unaltered from the moment of creation through the expulsion from Eden and on up to the present day is the authority vested in human beings to endow everything on the planet with a name: "branding," it would now be called. Another reality that remains unaltered is the existence of two sexes. Perhaps in his great anger the Lord left these things alone, on the assumption that they would cause trouble enough exactly the way they were.

Laden with emotion and symbolism, names get ensnared in everything. Directors at Canada's Central Experimental Farm recently caused an outcry when they banned the use of human names for cows. (They feared that a child named Elsie, say, would be embarrassed to meet a cow with the same name.) One way to monitor the amount of turmoil on the planet over time is simply to chart the number of name changes in the indexes of successive editions of The Times Atlas of the World. Ideology, nationalism, and geopolitics dictate continual revision. The first edition of the atlas published after the end of the Cold War contained new names for 10,000 locales. The world, of course, does not go along with every suggestion. Few people acceded to Kampuchea as a new name for Cambodia, and I have yet to notice much support for Mumbai, even though it happens to be the official name of Bombay. But most people eventually agreed to replace Rhodesia with Zimbabwe and Burma with Myanmar. The change from Peking to Beijing meant accepting a whole new system of transliteration, and therefore a new name for every place in China, which we all somehow managed to swallow.

Today there are more names than ever before, and yet there can never be enough. Things keep coming to light that never had any name at all. Experiments with nuclear accelerators during the past two decades have produced several previously unknown elements. Deciding which names to give the elements numbered 104 through 109 on the periodic table has generated fierce disputes. The discoverers of No. 106, at California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, wanted to name it seaborgium, after the Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, the laboratory's onetime director -- only to be overruled by an international tribunal, which favored a New Zealander. The issue of elemental nomenclature was settled (and seaborgium accepted) in 1997, after years of bargaining.

There is a huge backlog when it comes to the names of species. The Book of Genesis indicates that Adam, the first identity consultant, gave names to "all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field," but it says nothing about, for instance, beetles. A Smithsonian researcher estimates that some 30 million faunal species, mostly insects, haven't even been discovered yet. Many of the ones we know about still haven't been named. More than a thousand species of beetles in the single genus Agra are waiting for designations. And let's not even get into stars and galaxies.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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