Readers, Writers, Texts

What’s In A Name?

Names, exact terms and labels can serve a valuable purpose for communication in specific contexts. For example, it is good that in an operating theatre a surgeon can ask for a precise tool with an esoteric name instead of relying on vague description. 

On the other hand naming, labeling and stereotyping can have a negative impact on knowledge. With over-familiar labeling we may know what to expect – and also expect all we think we know. For example, imagine a new student joins your class and they have been labeled a ‘genius.’ You will develop a kind of knowledge of that student without ever before having seen them face to face. Not only will this colour encounters you have, but this has wider repercussions: take, for example, the way the media is so quick to apply the term ‘terrorist’ to people who commit certain violent acts whether or not they amount to acts of terrorism. This section will ask you to consider the impact of naming and labeling on the way we think about the world and other people. Begin your studies by reading Names, a chapter from Bill Bryson’s book Mother Tongue, then choose a couple more articles to boost your knowledge of this topic:

Class Activity 1: scope for change

Read this article about Scope, a charity for disabled children, which changed its name from ‘Spastic’s Society’. Write your thoughts about this issue as an editorial. Take a stance: was Scope right or wrong to change their name? Explain the background, and argue your opinion about the importance of having the right name for the Scope charity.


Class Activity 2: there is no such thing as soy milk


Our perception of a thing’s reality is created to a large degree by the name given to it. Thus we imagine ‘soy milk’ to be some sort of diary-like product, in terms of its appearance, nutritional value, and perhaps even taste. But of course ‘soy milk’ has nothing whatsoever in common with ‘milk’. Why then is it given this name? How can we avoid being mislead in this way? Read the article There Is No Such Thing As Soy Milk and make notes about your ideas to the following questions. Discuss your ideas with your classmates:

  • What are the most popular ‘milk alternatives’?
  • Does the connotation or the denotation of a word convey its meaning?
  • To what extent do names of products conceal their true nature?
  • Can you think of other products whose names hide their true nature? An example to get you started might be ‘soft drinks’. List as many as you can think of.

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