The Power of Naming

Over the past six months I have had some fascinating conversations about Language Making Nature that offer a glimpse into the power and importance of naming. As a writer, I primarily think of word-making as a tool for writers but it turns out that naming is of value in many other fields as well.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was being contacted and interviewed by Timothy Beatley for a professional journal of urban planners. Tim suggested that urban planners would be hungry for a dictionary of new terms for urban planning and design, and this is especially true for an innovative project like the Biophilic Cities movement.

My good friend, the bestselling author Jordan Fisher Smith, who I didn’t know had a degree in planning until this conversation, agreed and suggested that a commonplace term like “park” could carry connotations of homeless encampments or nighttime drug use. Jordan explained that a planner with a vision for changing our sense of place might want to come up with a new ways of naming this urban space.

I later mentioned this idea of a dictionary of terms to several other people, including a food expert and a doctor, and each person immediately proposed writing a dictionary for their own field, leading me to wonder if every field of study is hungry for a dictionary or handbook that outlines ways to create new words for their field. For instance, Kathryn Lukas at Farmhouse Culture mentioned the need to describe tastes and smells with words that don’t exist yet.

I’ve also had conversations with design and marketing experts because it makes sense that they constantly need new words. One marketing director told me that her firm has to generate lists of words almost daily and they often run dry of ideas. I loved the recent article in the New York Times that described the techniques of naming expert Anthony Shore and how he generates lists of hundreds and hundreds of words to come up with a single new brand name.

But I got a sense of how far our need for naming goes in a conversation with my friend Nick Salafsky, who I worked with in Borneo and now runs an adaptive management company called Foundations for Success. Nick is working on a long-term project to create a taxonomic classification of conservation threats and actions so that all the conservation organizations in the world can use the same words to describe a diverse range of threats and he describes this project as a linguistic challenge because they’re trying to name conservation actions in new ways.

I’m sure that I’ll keep having more of these conversations and learn about other fields where people are hungry for new words. This seems to be a common theme so please drop me a line or post a comment if you can think of other fields where words might be needed.