by any other name (or the problem of categories)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The rose is an analogy for Romeo, who comes from the rival family of the Montagues. The rational and irrational mind are exquisitely highlighted here. No, the name shouldn’t matter so much. The thing is in and of itself; the name doesn’t necessarily define it. And yet, what we call someone holds so much power and sway. It effectively supersedes the named precisely because of the relationship between the namer and the name, i.e. the cognitive processes that drive language acquisition and usage in social contexts.

Construction worker, janitor, scientist, homeless. Each identifier carries with it strong, predefined associations. We are both liberated and confined by our obsessive drive to categorize. If we know what something is, we can respond more quickly to any threat or opportunity. However, the words we use to identify/define pieces of our world are not clean things, and imbedded prejudices can limit our ability to see all facets in a detailed and considerate manner.

Are we able to stay open and see more clearly? Or are we bridled to an evolutionary happenstance of neurological hardwiring?

The Name Game

Signifier and signified. It refers to a seemingly innocent act of naming. Beyond that, it can represent the relationship between the word and the object; perhaps implicit in this naming process is also a love triangle of sorts. The named, the namer and the name itself.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot, but not as some grand socio-linguistic, culturally binding, institutionally recognized endeavor. Rather, I have been thinking about nicknames. Why do we use them? What is their purpose? Why do I feel deprived without one?

As a kid, my Mom called me Squirrel, after the way my hair looked in a ponytail. In the 6th grade, I had the dubious distinction of “Backseat Colomb”, which was given to me by the teacher. (Not to worry, nothing depraved, illicit or illegal occurred, except my cheeky answer to “What are some Valentine’s Day traditions?”) Since then I have accrued a number of others, and bestowed them as well. Nicknaming is not unique to Americans. In a brief literature search, some papers cropped about Italian, Irish and German traditions surrounding nicknames. In a completely unscientific survey of my circle, Peg Leg, Stretch, Woman, and Sweet Pea cropped up. These names elicited an array of reactions from the named, from fondness to distaste.

Perhaps a seemingly frivolous thing, nicknaming performs a social function. Many nicknames are acquired during the process of building relationships. We have ones from childhood, transitioning to high school and university, from falling in love. In a sense, nicknames reframe our identity, not in that they necessarily strip something away, but that they provide context linking the named and the namer.

The act of naming makes something familiar, breaks down one set of barriers and builds another. It is a mechanism for bonding and bestows a sense of belonging. It defines one’s position in a social group (in-group versus out-group), as well as individualizing that person. In engenders affection and acceptance. Of course not all nicknames are endearing. They can be cruel and shred a person’s confidence and sense of self-worth as well. However they don’t have to be. A well-chosen name can lift someone up, make them smile and give them a deep sense of connection. It’s this aspect that I adore, and crave.

als ik kan

This weekend we checked out the Stickley exhibition at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park.  The exhibit features the standard ratio of artifacts to (superficially) stultifying placards talking about Gustav’s life, influences, and philosophy.  Most of the pieces on display dated from the early period of his design care, when he was fresh and eager from the influence of William Morris.  Morris was primarily an artist and writer, rather than a designer of furniture.  Although he did start a company that made pretty trinkets for the home.  Digging deeper into exactly what “Arts and Crafts” means is an interesting endeavor.  One rife with anti-industrial sentiments and a longing for simple, economical craftsmanship.  The root influence could be seen as John Ruskin.  Consider this quote from his collected works (and yes, featured prominently on Wikipedia):

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Ruskin promoted the touch of the worker, the thorough incorporation of one’s self, creativity, thoughts and feelings into the product.  It seems both odd and natural that political sentiments and philosophies in general would evolve into an artistic style that left an indelible mark on typefaces, architecture, and pottery, among others.  As an art movement, it almost seems like a performance piece, a demonstration in three dimensions of concepts and “isms”.

“Arts and Crafts” was promoted in the US through lectures and advertisements.  At its heart is the celebration of simplicity.  The natural textures, hues and heft of building materials were celebrated and elevated through design principles.  There is also a notion of transparency in the exposed joinery. This extended beyond the building materials. Wallpapers, for example, were designed based on vegetables (artichokes) and other manner of flora and fauna.  It is a rejection of artificiality, of shoddy materials, and poor durability.

Stickley’s fascination with the Arts and Crafts movement inspired nearly two decades of furniture design, and a number of imitators (including his own family)  Als ik kan “As I can” became the motto of his furniture company.  The letters are prominent in the center of the joiner’s compass, which is the symbol seared onto all the furniture from his factory, on the Craftsman Magazine, and host of other Stickley bobbles.  While the sentiment “As best I can” has a ring of universality to it, Stickley borrowed it from 15th century painter Jan van Eyck.  There is another part to the quote, according to the placard.  Something along the lines of “As I can, so I would”.  It is the intention, and the act.