The need to name everything

The act of naming was described by Elias Canetti as ‘the great and solemn consolation of mankind’. Replace the anachronistic last noun with humankind or humanity and it fits an entry in Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues:

I have always been obsessed with naming things. If I could name them, I could know them. If I could name them, I could tame them. They could be my friends.

It’s not clear who the narrator is. Ensler says some of the monologues that constitute her book are ‘close to verbatim interviews’, some are composite, and with some she ‘just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time’.

eve ensler - the vagina monologues book coverThe unnamed naming obsessive mentions a collection of inanimate frogs she had as a child, each of which she named in a ‘splendid naming ceremony’ involving song, dance, frog noises, and excitement – though not before she had spent time with the frog, getting to know its nature. One was called ‘Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie’, so perhaps we should drop the ‘solemn’ part of Canetti’s line.

Soon, the narrator says, she ‘needed to name everything’ – rugs, doors, stairs, furniture, the flashlight (‘Ben’). Then she looked closer to home, so to speak:

I eventually named all the parts of my body. My hands – Gladys. They seemed functional and basic, like Gladys. I named my shoulders Shorty – strong and a little belligerent. My breasts were Betty. They weren’t Veronica, but they weren’t ugly either. Naming my ‘down there’ was not so easy. It wasn’t the same as naming my hands. No, it was complicated. Down there was alive, not so easy to pinpoint. It remained unnamed and, as unnamed, it was untamed, unknown.

Do you name things, with or without a splendid ceremony? Did you ever name a bicycle or car, a body part, a pair of shoes, a favourite pen, an unruly houseplant? Do tell.

65 Responses to The need to name everything

  1. The word mankind, is not anachronistic except in ideological circles
    . I still always use it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Garner’s (conservative) Dictionary of Modern American Usage says mankind is, ‘to many people, a sexist word’, and ‘the prudent writer will therefore resort to humankind‘. Burchfield’s Modern English Usage says the word is ‘now often replaced by humankind‘, and refers readers to the section on sexist language. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English does similarly. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says mankind is ‘open to some of the same objections as the generic use of man‘, albeit ‘less fervently pursued’.

      I could go on, but this selection should be enough to show that objecting to mankind is not the preserve of ideologues. Thanks for your visit.

  2. stuartnz says:

    This is a genuine question about usage, seeking clarification not a nitpick. Was his use of “mankind” anachronistic? I had the idea that an anachronism was something that was out of place for the time in which it was set. “Mankind” is now dated and merits replacing, but if it was standard at the time he wrote, would it be an anachronism?

  3. Jenny says:

    My parents, mostly my mom, have always named everything. Cars, buildings, bicycles, pieces of furniture, etc. We’ve had cars named the Salmon Can, the Green Hornet and the Grey Ghost. There are several outbuildings in ther big backyard: the Doll House (for doll houses and accessories), the Schwinn Tunnel (for bicycles), Junk and Disorderly (for junk, of course), the Cadillac Grill (has one hanging over the door) and Number Twelve (the 12th shed they built). There are others but you get the idea. I thought everyone did this!! Apparently not…

    • Stan Carey says:

      These are great! I salute your parents’/mom’s naming prowess. Invented car names tend to be a bit dull, but the Salmon Can, the Green Hornet and the Grey Ghost are wonderful.

  4. I have enough trouble calling my children by the correct names when I’m telling them off, so I don’t tend to name inanimate objects. We did once have a goldfish in the garden pond called Shadow, which I didn’t feel warranted a name, but my daughter did. Likewise, the huge spider on the top of the kitchen cupboard was named Crunchy. I’ve always envied people who felt their car had enough personality to give it a name; I don’t see it myself.

  5. cynthiamvoss says:

    I bought a car and named it Harry about 15 years ago. The Harry Potter books and movies were going strong, and when I got the license plates in the mail, they started with MGK and then some numbers. So, with magic in the plates, and a new-to-me Honda needing a name, I went with Harry.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Harry is a good name for a car (and for a person). It often reminds me of the French film Harry, He’s Here to Help, and this was reinforced by a Harry I know who’s a handyman; the association of helping fits the function of a car pretty well too.

  6. Mrs Fever says:

    My mom always named her cars. The Blue Bomb and The Beast are two memorable vehicle names from my childhood.

    I named teddy bears and select other toys when I was young.

    I’m prone to nick-naming animals, though they have perfectly acceptable names to begin with. My cat (now deceased) was adopted as Twiggy, but the name didn’t suit. So it became Twiggy Isabella (she knew her name – I couldn’t just strip it from her), then Bella, then Beli (Belly), then Beli (Belly) Button… Until eventually I just called her Button.

    As for inanimate objects… These days, yes, there are a few that get named. Mostly in the “appliances” category. ;)

    • Stan Carey says:

      More excellent car names! I’m beginning to think I should give one to mine. Teddy bears and other anthropomorphic (or anthropomorphised) toys almost demand to be named, from a child’s point of view. I’m sure I did this, but I don’t recall any off hand, and (unlike many people) I didn’t keep them past childhood.

      The cat names are intriguing. I’ve heard it said that all cats have multiple names, whether we discover them or not. Our family spaniel was granted about a dozen nicknames, some of them quite ridiculous.

      • Picky says:

        Three names per cat, according to Eliot: there’s the family name, then there’s the fancy name:

        Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
        Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
        Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
        Names that never belong to more than one cat.
        But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
        And that is the name that you never will guess;
        The name that no human research can discover–
        But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

  7. Hey Stan
    Annie from Australia here
    I love this story because we give everything a name in Australia, in fact we rename everything too. Ya have to give ya car a name, currently our car is called Mellow Yellow, guess what colour it is. Over many years and many cars some of my favourites are, common this one but our Volkswagen was the V Dub, the FJ Holden was called Frankie, our Holden Commodore was just THE DORE!, then before Mellow Yellow we had a Landrover Discovery and it was affectionately called The Hut! Some of the names are for obvious reasons others I just can’t explain, we just named them. My favourite is the body parts because we have some beauties in Australia, popular names are his Old Fella, his Donger, Tally Whacker, all of course referring to his penis, but I know someone who has named his The Yard, Mmm! wishful thinking. I call my breasts The Girls, but I think most women do, well those with no class like me that is. Oh and I call my backside Fatso which is what we usually name our wombats in Australia but they are both for the same reason so all good. I could go on forever, I think the Irish also have some great slang on the English vocab don’t they? Our Aussie Urban Dictionary is a rippa read, it is testament to the fact we have a language all of our own in Australia, The Land Down Under
    Hooroo
    From Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Annie. This is a great assortment of names! Mellow Yellow has quite a ’60s vibe, I guess because of the song. The Dore is a good one too. I think Tally Whacker and the like are just slang terms; I wouldn’t really think of them as names. I’ve never named a car or other vehicle, but (inspired by the comments here) I may try out The White Wind and The Grey Ghost for my bike and car. B)

      • The White wind and The Grey Ghost suggest you have a white bike and a grey car or vice versa. Great names, I agree that when you name something no matter what it is, you do feel more attached to it. Mellow Yellow has been at the mechanics, but for us it has been ill and in hospital…thats been the case with all our cars, they are more a living thing than just thing. Yes I know, it does seem odd but that’s just the way it is. Stan I hope you, The White wind and The Grey Ghost all stay fit and well, and enjoy some great times together
        Cheers from
        Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

    • Michael Vnuk says:

      ‘We give everything a name in Australia’ only applies for some definitions of ‘we’. For example, I’m an Australian (50+) and I’ve never named any of my cars, and I don’t know many people who do name their car. But perhaps I just mix with a different set of people.

      • Hello Michael
        Yes we mix with a different set of people for sure. I’m a (50+) Aussie sheila and everyone I know names their car, and we all speak Aussie slang pretty much all of the time. I even use Australian slang when I write, it just comes out that way, habit I guess but one I can’t seem to break I’m afraid. Whenever I say ‘we’ Aussies, please know I am not referring to you because you, well you are different. There ya go, Im a Taswegian, perhaps that’s where we’re different.
        Cheers Michael from
        Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

        • astraya says:

          I am also from Australia and (just) 50+ and we never named anything (apart from childhood dolls). This might have been because of our ‘poor as church mice’ life, where the house and car belonged to the parish and most of everything else was second-hand.
          Even when we did name dolls we weren’t very imaginative. My oldest sister called her rabbit doll Bish, because the bishop had given it to her, the second called her koala doll Karla and the third called her big doll Big Doll. I was adamant that I was not going to have a Teddy because everyone had a Teddy, so mum suggested ‘Bruin’. It was blue and I still have it.

          • Stan Carey says:

            In Galway there’s a boys’ secondary school, formally St. Joseph’s Patrician College, that everyone calls The Bish because in its early years (1860s onwards) it was commonly referred to as ‘the bishop’s school’. Even its website is bish.ie.

    • Kate Bunting says:

      “Yard” in that sense is authentic 17th century slang!

      • Hi Kate, pardon my ignorance, how are you referring to the Yard in this instance, what did it mean in 17th century slang?
        The person I know calls his penis the ” yard “, Stan requested people comment on names people call their belongings, cars, etc, I answered because I genuinely know many Aussies that have names for many things. Michael pointed out he was not one of these Aussies, and I agree, he and I clearly very different and mix with different Australian people ( Aussies ). You have commented on the Yard I wrote about, everthing I said in my comments happened or is fair dinkum among me and my friends. We name or nickname everything, to me it is a very normal Aussie ocker tradition, call us uncouth, uncultured, I say we are just fair dinkum Aussies. My husband and I and our sons play golf at same golf course all the time, when my Dad was alive he always played with us. He would tee off on this one hole that had a tree about 20 metres down the fairway on the right hand side. Dad would drive straight into this tree every time. Dad’s name was Dudley, to this day that tree is called Dudley. We still tee off from time to time and hit Dudley, always have a laugh and recall the memory of Dad, Pop to the boys.
        Cheers from
        Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

  8. i was a big namer as a child – “Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie” would have made perfect sense to me. At one point (I think I must have been temporarily rather lonely, as we had just moved houses), I recall naming all the trees, rocks, and bushes in the front yard and greeting them every time I came home. (The only example I remember is that the pine tree was called “Piney Whitford.”)

    It’s interesting to me that the one object an adult seems most likely to name is a vehicle. Our first car, purchased secondhand, was called “Lady” because the ad for it actually said “lady driver” (this was in 2000, speaking of anachronisms). I was once moved to christen a particularly handsome and sturdy green bike “Arthur.”

    This penchant seems to go back a long way, at least in Western culture – traditionally, ships and then trains had names, yes? Was this, I wonder, because early sailors were lonely, or simply because they needed to be able to label their own ships so they could be identified in the harbour?

    Had an interesting discussion with a physiotherapist about helping older adults transition to using a walker. She said she always gives the walker a name (usually “Jim”); she finds it helps clients, who are often resistant to the idea of using a walker, warm up to the contraptions.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Piney Whitford! It’s like something from a classic novel. I’m very taken by the idea of naming all the trees and bushes; Tolkien would surely have approved. The practice of naming boats goes back millennia, and I think began out of superstition and fear/respect for the sea and its power to end sailors’ lives.

  9. Heidy says:

    I find that the things which get named have faces. Cars, statues and figurines, and some houses and apartment buildings will get names, but a desk or hairdryer would not be worthy.

  10. cowboywithnonose says:

    I name all of my musical instruments. So far, I have Luke and Delphine, my piano and flute. Not sure why I named them. I think it might be that I see musical instruments as things with personality because the people who play them have distinct, collective personalities.

  11. All my cars had names. The first one was James, then I had George.
    Now I drive my boyfriend’s 4×4 and its name is Olympia.
    My mother’s first car was Georgia.
    It’s a mystery why I have to name cars.

  12. All my bicycles in adulthood: ‘Grace’ (I liked the idea of riding with grace, not to mention if I should fall from grace), ‘Spooky’, ‘Ned’, and, for the last 20 years, ‘Long Grass’. Ned was the nearest I got to a ceremony, sitting in Holyhead waiting for the sun to come up before riding it on to Liverpool that day and ultimately to Istanbul, I realised when the sun did rise that the bike was unnamed – so I had to think of a name before I could begin the trip, losing valuable daylight as I then began a naming debate with myself.
    I named one of my cars in America. ‘Orange’ because it was teal (yes I know).
    And as an adult I like naming kids toys that had somehow escaped naming, the most popular being ‘Teddy Grenade’ simply because every time you picked up the handsized little fella you exclaimed “Teddy Grenade!” and threw him. Every time. My mother hated him. As did the mothers of the carious children I used as an excuse to throw Mr Grenade.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I like your choice of names, and am wondering now if Grace was named partly (or even chiefly) for its pun-friendliness, à la Flann O’Brien. I’ve been seeing Spooky regularly in recent months because I’m slowly rewatching The X-Files. Maybe I’ll call mine Spokey.

    • > “I named one of my cars in America. ‘Orange’ because it was teal (yes I know).”

      Hee. We had a car sort of called “orange” too.

      My parents bought a secondhand car once; it was to be a second car in the family, so it ended up getting named by necessity—they hadn’t ever named cars before, but now they needed a way to ID which one we were talking about.

      The car was a sort of rust colour, and it amused my folks that the ownership papers, under “COLOUR,” said “ONG,” presumably a garbled short form for “orange.” So the car ended up getting referred to first as “the ONG one” and eventually “ONG.” (The other car then needed a name in reaction, and came to be known by the letters that began its licence plate, “YEV.”)

      The best names are often the ones that don’t get decided on, but that just happen.

  13. I play a jumbo acoustic guitar which I called J-Lo from the day I bought her. I was at a gig one night when another guitarist approached me and said that he had the same guitar. Before I had a chance to tell him that her name was J-Lo, he told me that his guitar was called Beyonce!

  14. I once named the walls in my bedroom — “long wall”, “short wall”, etc (the room was five-sided) — and wrote the names on the wall with marker pen.

    My parents did not approve.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The number five is very significant in magick and numerology, so it seems fitting that you named your five walls, whatever about using the marker.

      • The pentagram goes back to Pythagoras and his secret society. Because they invented the first method for constructing a perfect regular pentagon, being able to produce one meant you were already an insider, and so it served as the equivalent of a password. It later became associated with mysticism because things associated with secret societies tend to acquire mystique.

        However, my bedroom was not a regular pentagon. It was a rectangle with a corner chopped off, a result of the house having been built one room at a time. I don’t think that’s very mystical. :-)

        Not long ago my niece and I bioengineered a new species of plant by taking flowers that had fallen from one plant and placing them on the stems of another (I tweeted a photo at the time). I asked her to name the plant, and she called it Chelsea.

        I’ve written elsewhere about my stuffed toys Popeye, Hamrose and Buncho (monkey, elephant and octopus respectively).

  15. Jan Freeman says:

    We only had named cars when our daughter was young: she called our Datsun wagon (green with wood-patterned contact paper panels) Spitnose. Moved on to minivans, Van Rouge and Van O’ White. The voice of our first (installed, not GPS) map system was Minnie Driver. (She needed a name, I disagreed with her so often.) But I never had the naming urge before or since.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Spitnose is an interesting one, and quite punk in a way. I remember loving the (cutthroat-compound) name Spitfire as a child, even though I wasn’t into planes or military craft at all. I like Van Rouge too; it could be a pop singer or private eye.

      • Jan Freeman says:

        Or, y’know, just a red van! (Yes, Spitnose was proto-punk, wasn’t it? Absurd but rude-sounding.)

      • The word “spitfire” is utterly irresistable. It may well be the cutthroat compound aspect! A boy in my high school loved WWII planes and used to page through library books pointing out various ones. His fave was the Spitfire, and while I couldn’t care less in general, and had no idea why HE liked it, I loved it for the name, and would make him point out Spitfires to me until eventually it was the one plane I could ID myself.

        I think “Spitnose” is excellent, too. I would call a plane that!

    • I love Van Rouge! (I mean the name, not the drink. Red wine gives me headaches, but puns only make me smile.)

  16. Nurn says:

    When my daughter was a little girl (20+ years ago), her aunt had two brass rabbits on the mantelpiece. My daughter named them Quinsworth and Glass Bottle. I’ve always wondered where she came up with those names – she doesn’t remember now.

  17. Lady Demelza says:

    My mum is one of those people who gives a name to everything. When I was growing up, the feather duster was named Myrtle. It was replaced with a succession of new feather dusters over the years, but they were all called Myrtle. That’s just one example. She once shared with me a moment that she felt showed how much her husband of some five years truly knew and respected her. They had been into town and bought a blender and a mini vacuum cleaner. When they got home, he asked her what their names were going to be. For a while she bred lambs on a small farm. Each lamb was named, and she kept calling each lamb by its name even after they had been butchered and stored in the freezer. Example quotes – “I’m just making some Marge chops” or “we’re having roast Billy for dinner.”
    Our car was named Gemma because she was a Gemini, and she didn’t go for a service, she went to the doctor for a check-up. She didn’t get new tyres, but new shoes, not a new battery, but a heart transplant. In the end she died of cancer (rust all the way through her from years in the coastal salt air). My car today is called Faith – she was called that already when I got her and we kept the name. If Mister leaves her lights on, I say her eyes are open.
    I would agree with Annie from Australia above that this is an Aussie tradition. Most people I know name their cars, and I often ask what the car’s name is when I get in someone’s car if they are giving me a ride. By the way, I can explain about wombats called Fatso. There was a television show that ran for many years called ‘A Country Practice’ which featured a pet wombat named Fatso. (Having a wombat for a pet, however, is not an Aussie tradition.)
    My housemate’s five-year-old daughter has a toy unicorn named Ned Kelly – “because he was such a nice man” – and a tricycle named Phar Lap.
    My great-grandmother, upon becoming a grandmother, refused to be known as Nana or Grandma or any other such term. She decided, for reasons that will only ever be know to herself, that she would be called Mardi, and her husband would be called Gras – Mardi and Gras. The Gras didn’t stick, but to this day, decades after her death, everybody in the family refers to her as Mardi.
    I would say that the ultimate name-giver of all time would be Opal Whiteley, whose diary, written when she was five years old, was published in 1920. This book is a true treasure, well worth looking up.
    By the way – it took me a couple of minutes to work out what you meant by an anachronism. It took me that long to remember that some people these days don’t like the word mankind.
    And – Harry, He’s Here to Help – what an absolutely brilliant movie. One of my favourites.

    • Jan Freeman says:

      I’ve certainly had star-crossed cars, but when you say your car was a Gemini, was that based on manufacturing date or purchase date? (Birthday or Adoption Day, I suppose.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Myrtle is a rather marvellous name for a feather duster. I imagine it could make the chore more entertaining to have a work partner with such implied personality. Thanks for explaining Gemini: I wondered the same thing Jan did.

      Interesting that Mardi stuck but Gras didn’t. Maybe the fact that Mardi already sounds like a name and Gras doesn’t played a part. Though in Ireland, the similar-sounding grá ‘love’ is used by some people vocatively (a ghrá, like a stór, a chroí, etc.) to address a family member or other loved one.

      • Lady Demelza says:

        Yes, sorry about that, I forgot that Holden is Australian. How shockingly unpatriotic of me. Well, I did grow up in a Ford town, that’s probably what’s wrong with me. It’s a good question, though. Mister is a retired mechanical engineer – he talks of ‘watching cars being born’ in the factory with all the pride and joy of a midwife. I refer to Faith’s registration renewal date as her birthday – because we are compelled to buy terribly expensive presents for her (rego and insurance). That makes her a Pisces.
        And thanks for explaining the possible link with ‘Gras’ – my great-grandmother was a Synot from Wexford.

    • Our Mellow Yellow is just like your Gemma, heading a bit the same way as Gemma too I’m afraid. That’s exactly where I got Fatso for my backside from many years ago, loved A Country Practice, I also had a Nan who didn’t want to be called Nan, we all just called her by her first name, Ruby. Nan or Nanna tends to have come from my mother’s side and all the women down through the generations have all been Nan. Love the story about your Mum’s feather duster, Myrtle and her lambs,
      Thankyou for sharing your story with Stan and in turn we learn a snippet of your childhood memories.
      I love Ned Kelly and Phar Lap, very well known Aussie names
      Stan did say Do Tell
      And we have, and some funny and great stories have come forth from people

  18. Andrew says:

    My parents called me Pudser (pronounced Poodser) when I was young, and on occasion, trying to be affectionate, Pudser Pie. I am not sure why, since my birth certificate says Andrew. It perhaps explains my own prediliction to be more obvious with my children, who I encouraged to call dogs, doggy; cats, catty; slugs, sluggy, birds, birdy… I have a silver car now, which I call Silver (Hi ho)

  19. […] were talking about naming inanimate objects, and I reminisced about a certain lawnmower with which I became acquainted – I felt it was […]

  20. My cars definitely receive names, mostly because the first one bequeathed to me arrived as Bugly (a ’72 VW Bug). She seemed more like a Trixie, so she had that moniker for about a year before being T-boned (RIP).
    While driving home in my second car — a ’72 BMW 2002 — I couldn’t get over the difference in how she and Trixie felt and drove. The Bimmer became Tank Girl for 15 years.
    And the third car — built in this century, even (a 2012 Subaru Impreza) — is Josephine, named after a great-great-aunt who traveled the world and lived well. I hope for excellent adventures with this sporty gal for many years.

  21. Joy says:

    My dad was a dairy farmer and every cow had its own distinctive and appropriate name. You can imagine what sort of cows Bomber, Stinker and Kicker were! And then there were the more amenable who were called Blossom or Lulu. They each knew their names and would respond immediately when called. His cattle dogs were called things like Ringer and Tiger. However, there is a rule that cannot be broken – never give a name to an animal that is intended for eating. My little girl friend called her lamb Wooly but when Wooly appeared on the dining table, she lost her appetite and cried her heart out. My first and most loved car, a Mini 850, was called Mitzi and no one referred to her in any other way.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Those are very vivid names for the cows! When my sister was a child she named some of the local cows, starting with Foddy (who had a distinctive tan colour) and applying rhyming names at random to Foddy’s colleagues (cowleagues?). I don’t think we ate any of them.

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