Skip to main content

On the naming of things

Maria thought of plants at school - beans in jam jars... and mustard and cress on bits of flannel.  But what I like, she thought, is not all that but the names of things.  And every single kind of thing having a different name.  Holm oak and turkey oak and the sessile and pedunculate oak.  Sessile and pedunculate...
'What?' said Mrs Foster.
'Nothing.'

Holm oak - quercus ilex

I have on my bookshelf a faded paperback in a cracked plastic cover.  On the front cover, a girl with windblown hair gazes into the distance; below her, small silhouetted characters in top hats and Victorian dresses parade on a beach; and under them are grey stones with swirly ammonite fossils etched on them in white.  The title, in block capitals, is A STITCH IN TIME by PENELOPE LIVELY.

I had never given much thought to the author until I happened upon a book in the library called Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, also by Penelope Lively.  Despite the references in the title, I was disappointed that she didn't mention "my" book in the text.  I found the first chapter, a musing on old age, rather slow going; but then she moves on to stories of her childhood (in Egypt, in the Second World War) and always having her nose in a book, and being fascinated by historical landscape, and learning the names of birds, and finding fossils in a rock.  And I could see, exactly, how a lady like that would have written a book like A Stitch in Time.

"The naming of things", writes Penelope Lively in A Life in Time.  "I have always needed that, where the physical world is concerned."  It's a strange compulsion, this need to identify and classify the things around us.  I think maybe we all have it to some extent, for some class of objects.

Before Toby was born, I was firmly in the, "It's a red one" class of naming cars.  Now, under his instruction, I have learned that this is a Volvo and that's a Peugeot.   Then he moved on to models - a Skoda Octavia, a Renault Clio - and then even to categories within that, so that he informs me that that's not the current model or the next oldest one, but the one before that.  The hatchback version, of course.

I grew up in a house where books such as The Concise Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of Britain and Europe were regularly consulted.  My dad is firmly in the group of people who need to know the names of what they see, but I dabble around the edges.  This time of year, when the spring flowers come out, I get irritated that I don't know more of them.  Then I get home and forget to look in the flower book, and spend the whole season vaguely thinking, "What's that pink one?  I really must find out what that pink one is called."  I know a few plants, a few birds, a few stars, and not much, it seems, of anything.

What I do share with Penelope Lively is that satisfaction with the language of naming.  Sessile and pedunculate.  Lesser celandine, wood anemone.  Arcturus, Andromeda, Sirius the Dog Star.  Names which are a pleasure to say, that fit well in your mouth. 

The names connect us back to the object's history, to the people who named them.  Cassiopeia, that W of stars in the sky, was a queen of Aethiopia.  Passion fruit were named by missionaries who thought they illustrated the crucifixion of Christ.  We spotted a pair of snails on the way to school, and I was trying to remember their proper name - arthropod, monopod?  Definitely something-pod.  Does that mean they lay eggs?  asked Toby.  No, I knew that pod was connected to foot, as in podiatry.  Turns out they are gastropods, from the Greek from "stomach" and "foot" - apparently a reference to their unusual anatomy.


So names help us to identify things, but the names that we know also identify us.  They root us in a time and place.  We name the things that we see every day; and if we are suddenly set down in a place where we don't know the name of anything, we feel lost.  A whole cloud of knowledge is suddenly useless, and we have to build a new web of connections to our environment.

Maybe it's not such a strange compulsion after all, this naming of things.

Holm Oak image: By Dinkum [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Snail image: By macrophile on Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Dove Valley Walk: Going round the bend

Somewhere between Marchington and Uttoxeter, the wiggles of the River Dove stop wiggling west to east, and start wiggling north to south. If it went in straight lines, it would make a right-angled bend. As I'm following the river upstream, this was my last section walking west. After this it's north to the Peak District and Dovedale. here the Dove swings north The main walk of this section was all on the south side of the river. But I also did a separate, shorter walk, to explore the village of Doveridge, and the old Dove Bridge which is tantalisingly glimpsed from the A50. Walk 1: Marchington to Uttoxeter I liked Marchington even more as I arrived there for the second time. I parked opposite the village shop - noting the "ice cream" sign outside for later - and near the brick-built St Peter's Church, with a war memorial built in above the door.  A few streets took me to the other side of the village, where I found a path alongside a stream, then across some hay m

San Antonio

San Antonio is towards the south of Texas and feels very much more Mexican than American. The balmy evenings, the colourful Mexican market, the architecture of the buildings, and the number of people speaking Spanish around us all added to the impression. The city, in fact, grew out of a Spanish mission and presidio (fort), built in 1718 as part of Spain's attempt to colonize and secure what was then the northern frontier of the colony of Mexico. Texas was then a buffer zone between Mexico and the French-held Louisiana, and Spain was keen to cement her hold on the area by introducing settlers and converting the natives to Catholicism and loyalty to the Spanish government. The missions in general had no great effect, but the San Antonio area was the exception to the rule, growing into an important city with five missions strung out along the San Antonio river. The first of these, San Antonio de Valero, later became well-known as the Alamo, where 182 Texans died in 1836

Lots of cooking

This week, I have mostly been creating enormous piles of washing up. I thought you'd prefer to see the clean stuff. Occasionally something edible escaped from the mounds of mess and made it to the table. I don't know why it turned into such a cooking week; we haven't been entertaining, and I didn't think I'd added too many new dishes to my weekly menu.  The main problem was that I made several things in advance, which spread out the cooking - and hence the washing up - across a much greater time and area. The star of the menu was undoubtedly the barbeque ribs.  I don't believe I've ever cooked ribs before, but I followed the recipe from Jamie Oliver's Save with Jamie , and they turned out - well, just like ribs should!  Soft and tender, and coated generously with a sweet and tangy glaze.  It's not in any way a difficult recipe - but like I said, it kind of spreeeaaads, until you feel like you've been dealing with these ribs for a very