“The naming of cats is a difficult matter. It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”
-T. S. Eliot
Change “cats” to “fads” and I think T. S. Eliot’s logic holds. Especially unpleasant fads.
When it comes to naming things that are novel, annoying or just plain awful, a variety of options present themselves.
Do you name them something that is as unpleasant as they are? (One example of this is “mansplaining.”) Do you name them something that, bad as the trend might be, is much, much worse? (“Spornosexual.”) Do you name them at all?
There are two schools when it comes to naming. The first is what I am going to call the Ursula LeGuin school. “The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing,” LeGuin wrote in “The Rule of Names.”
I used to belong to this school. If a thing exists, why not name it as precisely as you can, so that you can alert people when it is happening? Otherwise by the time you get around to pointing out what you’re talking about, the situation may well be over. “Oh, look, someone’s doing that thing again! Not that thing, the other thing.”
But lately I’m not so sure.
Lately, any number of quality words are sneaking out of our vocabularies. Look what’s happening to poor tenebrous, for instance. It’s shady.
On a recent vocabulary assessment, 49 percent or less of students tested in 12th grade knew what “urbane” meant. Urbane! Like Urbane Outfitters, where you can buy champagne flutes, top hats, polite guffaws behind long gloves and turn-of-the-century charm.
And look at what we’re putting in the dictionary instead. Here is a list of just a few words we’ve added to the Oxford Dictionaries online since 2010:
Glamping. Glamping. Boyf.
Do we need these? Do we really need these? It reminds me of the P. G. Wodehouse quote about an author who “told us for an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.” You don’t need to name it. Just apologize and stop.
Yet we have this tendency, when we are confronted with a trend that we dislike, to give it a name.
“You’ve heard of the metrosexual. Now, meet the “spornosexual,” begins an article in the New York Daily News.
Must we? I’d rather not.
“The new term embodies the modern day man who’s often at the gym workin’ on his fitness. He’s chiseled, tanned and hot. He prefers to spend his time, and his money, on his physical upkeep. And he doesn’t shy away from showing off his results.”
No, thanks. I was barely on board with metrosexual.
Consider “mansplaining.” It has, as Lily Rothman at the Atlantic noted, been with us long before the term existed. “Turns out 2012 isn’t really the year of the mansplainer. The only reason we think it so is that the word itself didn’t exist until recently.” She went on to point out, “It’s a fine line, but seeing mansplaining everywhere — especially once you know it’s been around so long — is perhaps as dangerous as allowing it to go unnoticed.”
After all, if you don’t buy into the LeGuin school, there’s the Orwellian school of thought. Not to go to the Newspeak extreme where, by removing the word for a thing, you hope to remove the thing itself, there’s still what Orwell had to say in his essay on “Politics and the English Language.” He wrote that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.” (Spornosexuals only exist because we believe in them. If we stop clapping, maybe their light will flicker out!) Orwell goes on to say “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” This is not quite what he had in mind, but once we admit the word “spornosexuals” — we have to contemplate them.
New words are powerfully seductive. You can, if you’re not careful, just run around stamping everything with your shiny new label without stopping to consider whether this is precisely warranted or whether it’s actually doing anything useful for the discussion. These words are new bins into which ideas can be sorted, and the whole process can resemble what happens when I try to clean my apartment, where I create a big shoebox and label it “Important Things I Will Deal With Later.” Then I dump everything into that shoebox. There’s a better way, surely. You can dismiss whole conversations by just hashtagging them with your new term. It can silence instead of pinpointing. Sometimes it can actually make you less precise.
Without getting into the “is there such a thing as blue, really, man? If we don’t have a name for it, does it exist? Are trees alone in forests capable of feeling love?” territory, I beg you, writers and everyone else: stop before you create a term. Think. Ask if it’s necessary. And use it with care.
Tempting, I know. If I had a dime for every piece that begins with “call them Generation [word]” or “call them [noun]” or “let’s call them the [name]” — I could retire somewhere tropical right now.
But lets be a little more careful in our naming. Do “spornosexuals” really merit a whole new hideous-sounding term? Isn’t a simple apology all that’s required?