Of Names

WHO does not know the man who is in the habit of marring the stillness of ‘summer days . . . that scarce dare breath they are so beautiful,’ by glibly reciting the name of every bird within reach of his opera-glasses, or his blood brother who makes night hideous by calling the roll of the stars? I have no quarrel with the abstract ability to tell a yellow warbler from a cedar waxwing, and Sirius from Orion, if that ability results from a genuine and sympathetic sense of difference. But if it results (as seems to me very often the case) from a mere passion for nomenclature, then it is only a new symptom of an old and groundless superstition.

The essence of the doctrine I take to be this, that a knowledge of the name of anything gives to the possessor of the secret a certain power over the thing itself. Some such belief is to be found, I suppose, in the mythology of every primitive people. The magic lore of the Middle Ages is saturated with it. It speaks in the jargon of cheap Spiritualism and in half the mystic cults of the day. Moses, for instance, was not at all concerned about trivial or irreverent allusions to the Deity. He was zealous only that his name should not be taken in vain, because Moses considered it a tribal advantage not lightly to be utilized to know that the name of God was Jehovah.

‘Be thou the beginning of my song, O father of the morning,’ sings Horace. But he adds cannily, ‘Or Janus, if with more pleasure thou hearest thyself called by that name.’

These examples are religious and therefore imaginative, but the typical modern expression of the same feeling is scientific and therefore prosaic. The young Greeks were taught that Apollo drove the sun round the earth. To-day we say that gravity drives the earth round the sun, and in so saying we have added a certain vagueness to the cosmic miracle without in the least explaining it. Pan is indeed dead, but in his place we have installed what Meredith called ‘birds and beasts and herbs which ninnies call Nature in books.’ The result is that while there are few of us who still seek the favor of Pan by taking thought upon the name by which to address him, there are many who exhibit a complacent satisfaction in a random knowledge of the names of the creatures who inhabit his domain.

Now the worst feature of this particular superstition is not so much that it is excessively dull, it is not even so much that it is not true, as that it fills its victims with an entirely unwarranted sense of achievement. In point of fact you cannot unlock the magic of the woods by cataloguing the trees, or make a star dance at a word. You can do no more, to quote the happy phrase of Alfred Noyes, than to ‘cloak’ such things ‘with the stupor of a name.’ And yet really intelligent men and women persist in saying, ‘See that bobolink!’ or ‘Notice the Pleiades!’ with a self-indulgent vanity just short of proprietary. Clearly they feel that they have put salt on the tail of that particular bird or constellation and that henceforth it will be in their power. They transfix a butterfly with a name with much the same pleasure with which a collector transfixes it with a pin, and with much the same result. They are willing to instruct the ignorant and to be admired for doing so, but above everything else rings the note of conquest, of having read a part of the riddle of the universe, and thought some of the thoughts of creation.

Even as I write, the ‘timeless’ summer day narrows to its appointed close, the inscrutable voices of the night begin to speak from the darkness, and the evening star flickers in the sky. Would it profit anything, I wonder, to know whether it is Jupiter or Venus?