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.
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.