What's in a Name
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about names. It started when I was walking along a creek and noticed the difference in my perspective when I wondered “who” was in the creek, instead of “what” was in the creek. The perspective of “who” caused me to be aware of the living nature of the plants, animals, even the flowing creek itself, and my relationship with them.
Around the same time that I was having these thoughts, I read an essay about the Spokane River called “What Is the Name of Our River?” by Barry G. Moses (Sulustu), an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. In the essay he discusses different ways the Indigenous people of eastern Washington referred to the river. Some of their names for it translate to Fast Water, Life Giver, Life River, and Narrow Water. These names speak of the river’s character and its gifts of water to drink and fish to eat. Moses also tells of Indigenous people referring to themselves by where they lived in relation to the river, not giving the river their name. It was European colonists who called the people Spokane and gave the name of the people to the river.
Naming is a way of claiming ownership. European colonizers claimed lands in the western hemisphere in the names of royalty and in the name of the Christian church. The U.S. continued this habit as it moved westward under Manifest Destiny. From New Mexico to Alaska, places were named for people that mattered to the colonizers. The mountain Navajo called Tsoodzil (meaning blue bead, or turquoise mountain) was renamed Mt. Taylor for president Zachary Taylor. The mountain the Athabascans called Denali (meaning the tall one, great one, or mountain-big) was renamed Mt. McKinley for president William McKinley. The legacy of over 1400 place names that today still contain racial slurs testify to the use of naming to subjugate Black and Indigenous people.
This habit of naming things for people extends to creatures, too. There are over 100 birds named for a person. Many are named for the first person of European descent who killed and catalogued the species using European scientific methods of the time. One of these birds is the McCown Longspur. John P. McCown was a U.S. Army officer who, in 1851 while on frontier duty along the Rio Grande, collected the first specimen of his namesake bird. Later, McCown resigned his commission with the U.S. Army to serve in the Confederate States Army.
I’m a birdwatcher and enjoy going places to see birds. The Central Park birdwatching incident of 2020 drew attention to the fact that people of color who are birdwatchers face challenges that I don’t. The incident led to an annual Black Birders Week. It also caused the birding community to wrestle with racism inherent to their systems, including the naming system.
The American Ornithological Society (AOS) recently changed the name of McCown’s Longspur to Thick-billed Longspur. The reasons given for the name change included McCown’s confederacy connection and the “on-going harm” created by the name. I wonder if they even considered the fact that McCown’s frontier duty, where he collected the specimen, was for the purpose of claiming land from Mexican people and subjugating Indigenous people.
I also wonder if a larger perspective is being missed. In the process of removing a hurtful name, the AOS redirected the focus of the bird’s name from a person to the creature itself. “Thick-billed” acknowledges a characteristic of the bird. The new name helps us recognize and know the bird as a creature separate from humans.
The power to name something is an authority. In the book of Genesis, we see it exercised by God when Abram is renamed Abraham (Chapter 17), and Jacob is renamed Israel (Chapter 35). In Genesis 2:18-20, the authority to name animals is given to the earth creature, hā’ ādām, the human made of the same dust or ground (Gen 2:7) from which the animals are made. Humans frequently act as if this ancient story gives them unfettered authority, without remembering there’s more to the story.
When God named Abraham and Israel, it was the start of a relationship in which God had a responsibility to them. Similarly, the story of the human naming animals is the start of a relationship and a responsibility. The story continues with God placing the human in creation to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). The Hebrew words also are translated as: to work for, to serve, to watch over, and to preserve. For more reflection on the human relationship with animals, I recommend “2:19 Learning from the Animals” in Eco Bible Volume 1: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus, by Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee.
I’m troubled by the European-American practice of naming plants, animals, land features, or any part of creation in honor of a person. At best it obscures the uniqueness of each part of creation. At worst, it subjugates parts of creation for glorification of the human creature. In the process, we make creation about us and fail to recognize that we are one part of a creation that points to something greater than ourselves.
Our egocentric perspective of creation has reached its culmination in geologists proposing a new epoch called the Anthropocene, from the Greek term “anthro” for human. Its defining features are the changes people are making to the planet and its systems. The planet has become about us. We even have an epoch named after us! The irony of it all is that by living as if only human beings matter, we are changing the planet in ways that threaten the well-being of all people.
I don’t know how to solve climate change, species extinction, water shortages, crop failures, extreme weather events, and other problems that come with the Anthropocene. But I do know actions follow words, and the names I use for things affect how I think about myself and others. I don’t have the authority to literally change the names of things; however, I can choose to stop blindly accepting what I’ve been told to call things. What if I called the fall aster currently blooming amid the grass in my yard a wildflower, instead of a weed? What if I called the beaver in the nearby creek an ecosystem restorer, instead of rodent or pest?
Just like when I look for “who” instead of “what” in the creek, changing the names I use helps me see the wonders of the world around me for what they are, with their own characteristics, value, and role separate from human beings. This is where living in right relationship within creation begins, and possibly it’s the start of a better future for all life on planet Earth.
P.S. If you’re concerned about place names that contain racial slurs, contact your senators and congressional representative and ask them to support the Reconciliation in Place Names Act.