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What’s In A Name?

June 1, 2012

So at one point in my life I went to a specialty shop and paid for a snake to live in my house. A wonderful, sweet, about 3 ft. ball python. I say “paid for him to live in my house” and not “own” or “have” because there’s something very odd to me about claiming ownership of him, and other animals and animate things. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have ever bought him but I’m still very glad I have him now. Plus he was captive bred and so a little more certifiably ethical than those border-crossing snakes out there and it’s not like I’m going to release him now just because I feel badly about “owning” him after having thought about the concept of ownership of another living thing a little more.

On to the tale. I’m preparing tonight to have some people over and as I was cleaning up the mess that was my house after a week of working doubles, my brain took a slight diversion in preparatory activity to remind me that people will probably ask what the name of the snake is. I inwardly giggled a bit as I recall that almost every time people come over, at least one person asks. This never ceases to feel just completely *odd* to me. If he were a dog that had been trained to respond to a certain name I might not skip a thought over it but he’s a snake. It’s not like I use his name around him. I just know what it is. The piece of language that I’ve attached to him so my brain has something to grasp other than a picture.

Having recently finished the newest installment in the Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card, Shadows In Flight, I was musing about language after having read this one wonderful (potentially *spoiler*-ish) passage, so look away now if you haven’t read it yet-And for the love of everything wonderful if you haven’t read any of the Ender series, go do it now!!! But buy the books from half price or another used book place. Because as much as I am and forever will be in love with the series, monetarily supporting Card and his so not feminist-capiche beliefs drives me crazy:

Whenever I think about thinking, my thoughts become words. It is the language talking at me. But the language came from outside. I think I control it, but it controls me back. Like the Hive Queen in the minds of the drones, language becomes part of the background noise, the air I breathe, gravity;it’s just there. Language acts in the human mind the way the Hive Queen acts in the minds of the other Formics. *It shapes us without our understanding how we’re being shaped.*

Shadows In Flight, Orson Scott Card (page 190)

The final emphasis is mine. It looks to me like OSC is gettin’ a little anthropologically linguistically inclined and I like it. What really struck me today though was the way that language, naming practices, and ownership all are sort of thrown together sometimes. I get confused and think I might vaguely dislike when people ask me the name of the snake in the house because I don’t like how it connotes his lack of agency. I know what y’all are saying, “Sarah, it’s a snake…agency…really?”

But I think the reason it gets to me is because Isak (and that is his name) stands in for things that I can’t understand (or don’t yet). Naming him sometimes feels as icky as some of the neocolonialist practices that is his namesake in the first place. His namesake being Karen Blixen (who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen for the delicious book Out Of Africa). One of the most beautiful passages in the book is a short story of the shooting of an iguana and how, once shot:

he faded and grew pale, all colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendor. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.

Out Of Africa, Isak Dinesen (page 247)


Ain’t he the cutest?

When I bought Isak, I gave him that name to remind myself that even though I purchased him as a companion (and feel guilty for it often), you can’t own a wild thing. But not even juts a wild thing, you can’t own something you don’t understand. And to name something to me, to claim yourself in a higher position over it by naming it is essentially claiming ownership, regardless of your connection to, or understanding of that thing, phenomena, creature, group of people, cultural practice…(you catch my drift).

And in thinking about names, I often muse about my own. Most people know it in the christian sense of the story of Sarah and Abraham in the bible (though the story is also in the quran). Coincidentally, Sarah was also apparently the mother of Isaac. I have never been able to escape knowing that according to everyone who cares enough to point it out to me, my name translates as “princess.”

PRINCESS. It makes me want to die a little inside that my fiercely feminist self is a harbinger of one of the most icky-normally-not-so-feminist monikers of princess. Take a minute and just visualize princesses. What they make you think of, The connotations they inspire. In an anthropological linguistic sense, names shape things. I definitely believe that people underestimate the power of language all the time. I can only begin to guess how strong names are in influencing people’s lives (and can recall some academic and New York Time-sy pieces I’ve read in the past about “ethnic sounding” names on resumes being passed over for a more stereotypically “white” name, ugh).

I don’t think I can tell how my name has shaped me. I don’t think Isak even knows he has a name. But I do know that words and names matter. So the next time you want to call a spade a spade, make sure it’s actually a spade (and good luck being 100% positive that you’re correct).

Addendum: Someone indeed did ask me last night what the name of the snake was. And upon re-reading this I’ve realized it is verging on a severe argument towards practicing cultural relativism above all else. That wasn’t my intention and I hope that’s not how it comes off. In further posts I will indeed muse about cultural relativism some more but if you’d like to get a head start on some of the difficulty of a strict relativistic practice, see some of my previous work here.

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