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 and, 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.

Given the growth in demand along a broad front, it is hardly surprising that some places are experiencing severe name shortages. A combination of relatively few traditional surnames and relatively few popular first names has given Denmark a higher concentration of people with identical names than any other European country. The government there has instituted an emergency program to encourage people to change their surnames legally, to almost anything at all. (There are limits: the Danish words for "dolphin" and "wheat beer" have been permitted; those for "Sputnik" and "Antichrist" have not.) The expansion of American suburbs has caused a shortage of street names in developments, or at least of bucolic street names like Babbling Brook and Whispering Glade. Loudoun County, Virginia, a rapidly growing suburban region, employs a Geographic Information Systems Services Coordinator, whose job, in part, is to guard against duplication. The coordinator told The Washington Post, "Everybody wants Weeping Willow."

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If we could just get language right, the rest would eventually follow: the idea is a venerable one. When it comes to names, though, the sad truth is that reform, rationality, and forward thinking never really work -- they usually end in failure or ridicule. Revolutionary France gave each month of the year a new name that corresponded to its character; thus the autumnal months became vendemiaire ("vintage"), brumaire ("mist"), and frimaire ("frost"). One Englishman responded by calling those months Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy. In the heyday of scientific Marxism people in Russia gave their children names such as Villior (a Russian acronym for "Vladimir Lenin, Initiator of the October Revolution") and Remizan (an acronym for "she participated in world revolution"), names that today must make their bearers feel like dolts.

The tinkerers press on. It hardly used to matter that every language had its own vocabulary for specific body parts. But problems have arisen as the medical profession becomes globalized. What is Rondelet's valve in one place is Achillini's in another and Tulpius's somewhere else. A subcommittee of the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists has developed a new worldwide anatomical lexicon. Although the term "Adam's apple" will surely survive for a time in Anglophone usage, the preferred designation is now "the laryngeal prominence." The declivity between a woman's breasts, which doctors themselves have often referred to as cleavage, will now officially be called "the intermammary sulcus." The term may never catch on, but it probably won't be long before some cybersquatter pays his $35 for

One indication of what may lie ahead in the realm of reformist nomenclature comes from the European Union, whose central administration, in Brussels, has been wielding ever more power over routine regulatory functions. The language differences among the citizens of the EU's fifteen member nations are considerable, and the lack of a common vernacular strikes some officials as untidy. Last year the Eurocrats issued a Cosmetic Products Safety Directive, which declared that henceforward the names of ingredients in perfume, powder, lipstick, and various toiletries must be written in Latin. If a product contains milk or water, the label must say "lac" or "aqua." If it contains egg, the label must say "ovum." If it contains Brazil nuts or peanut oil, the label must say "bertholletia excelsa" or "arachis hypogaea." While they were at it, the Eurocrats also decreed that if a product "may or may not contain" a certain substance, the label should replace those words with the symbol +/-.

I happen to like the idea, in general, of extending the use of Latin. (For what it's worth, I also happen to like calling Ethiopia "Abyssinia" and Sri Lanka "Serendip.") More to the point, perhaps, the new regime has historical precedent in its favor: the last time Europe enjoyed true unity, in the days of imperial Rome, Latin really was the continent's common language. Maybe some of the Middle East's animosities could be overcome by reverting to Hittite.

The temptation is always to go too far. I would suggest that the Cosmetic Products Safety Directorate, taking its Latin regulation to heart, engrave over its portals this legend: "Facilis descensus Averno -- It is easy to go down into Hell." Virgil completed that thought with a question that +/- a timely warning: "But to climb back out?"

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.

Illustration by Marco Ventura.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Nominal Authority - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 16-18.