A boat by any other name

With the exception of sound effect words (called onomatopoeia like sizzle, beep), speech sounds are arbitrarily attached to the meanings of words.  There’s not really a reason why a dog is called dog and not some other string of sounds like bop.  And as Juliet famously said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  But, language is more than just strings of sounds: our words have meanings, associations, connotations, implications.  So, what’s in a name?

This topic has been on my mind because a small town here in Québec is in the midst of reinventing itself by way of a new name, and it’s understandable why.  The town is called Asbestos, or at least it will be until the new name is approved by the provincial government sometime in the coming months.  The small town was home to the world’s largest asbestos mine, founded 140 years ago, well before the terrible effects of asbestos on human health were known.  At the time, it probably seemed like a great idea to name the town after a booming industry, but the mine was closed in 2011, and now the town is ready to move on to a name that is not associated with a carcinogen.  It seems that people care a lot about the name: voter turnout was almost 50%, which is better than for Montreal’s municipal elections.  The name change is not without controversy, but three rounds of voting and $100,000 later, we have Val-des-Sources, Québec.

The democratic approach to assigning names does not always run so smoothly as it did in the town soon to be formerly known as Asbestos.  In 2016, the British National Environment Research Council (NERC) polled the public for a name for a $300-million research vessel under construction.  Unlike the voting in Asbestos, there was no ballot with predetermined options, so it’s not really surprising that some of the suggestions were… a little out there.  Throw a question out to the internet, and you need to be prepared for whatever the internet throws back.  What the NERC didn’t expect, it seems, is that a name like Boaty McBoatface would be by far the most popular suggestion, with over 140,000 votes, more than three times as many as the next most popular option.  So did they name the vessel Boaty McBoatface?  Unfortunately, they did not.  People even petitioned the NERC to go ahead with the name, but instead they named it RSS Sir David Attenborough, a suggestion that got less than 3% of votes.  I guess there was some concern that a name like RSS Boaty McBoatface was unsuitable for serious stuff like underwater scientific research.  In any case, much ado about the naming of a boat.

And now for another place name that simply cannot go unmentioned in a discussion about naming.  Newfoundland has quite a list of unusual place names, but there’s one that takes the cake.  Dildo found itself in the spotlight in the summer of 2019, when comedian Jimmy Kimmel took quite an interest in the small fishing town, so much that he was named its honourary mayor.  The origin of the somewhat suggestive name is unclear.  It may have come from a word meaning the wooden pins in a rowboat that hold the oars in place.  Or it may have originated from the French name of a nearby island, De l’ile de l’eau.  Whatever the origin, it seems fair to say that the name of this town has shaped the experiences of the local population.  Nearby Blaketown didn’t get any attention from Jimmy Kimmel, or the associated boon to the local economy.

We’ve covered place names and boat names, and now on to people names.  Choosing a name for a baby is no easy task, and surely every parent wonders how the choice of a name will impact the child as he or she grows.  In choosing for my own kids, I just wanted names that were fairly well known but not currently too common.  While my choices were a little conventional, some people take a different approach.  Take, for example, Frank and Gail Zappa.  Their four children all have somewhat unconventional names, but their second child’s name, Dweezil, is likely the most notable.  Apparently, dweezil was originally a term of endearment that Frank Zappa invented for his wife’s oddly shaped baby toe, which they decided to repurpose into a baby name. 

Intuitively, we know that there is something unusual about the sequence of the sounds and letters that make Dweezil stand out.  Let’s figure out why that is.  There aren’t that many words in English that start with dw: dwindle, dwarf, and dwell.  And words that end in the spelling z-i-l aren’t common either, unless you count the names of prescription medications.  But the sound zil is reasonably common, just written in other ways, as in puzzle and easel.  We normally use zzle when the preceding sound is a short vowel (puzzle, sizzle, embezzle— exception: bamboozle) and we use sel when the preceding sound is a long vowel (easel, diesel— exception: chisel).  Also, the long E sound is more commonly spelled as ea in two-syllable words (reason, eager), rather than as ee.  I doubt that the Zappas were looking for conventional spelling, but if they were, it they could have gone with Dweasel.  Anyway, I would wager that the unusual name has impacted Dweezil Zappa’s life somewhat, or at least has made him stand out in the crowd: he’s a successful guitarist, composer, actor, cooking show host, and runs a music camp, aptly named Dweezilla.

And finally, I have a friend whose nickname is so widely used that I didn’t know his real name until I’d known him for quite a while.  The nickname is Bada, and the story of how he got this name is the sweetest.  Apparently not much of a hockey player as a child, his friends decided he might make a better mascot and nicknamed him after the mascot of the Québec Nordiques, an otter named Badaboum (which is also what you say in French when a baby falls on his bum, like oopsy-daisy).  The name then transformed to Badagny (a mashup of Badaboum + his last name), then shortened to Bada, and apparently sometimes even Bad.  According to him, this name has brought him nothing but good fortune.  You can’t not smile when someone introduces themselves as Bada; it’s a jovial name for a jovial guy.  I guess he’s still not a great hockey player, but he’s a great musician, friend, and all-around awesome person.  (Merci Bada de m’avoir permis de parler de ton nom !)

So, what’s in a name?  A lot, apparently, and so I’m not sure that we agree with Juliet.  A rose, town, person, or boat by any other name might not actually smell as sweet, since it seems clear that these colourful names influence our perceptions of their referents.  Taking this idea quite a lot further, there is a notion that our thoughts and perceptions of the world around us can be influenced, or even determined, by the language(s) that we speak.  For example, Russian speakers appear to have an easier time distinguishing certain shades of colour compared to English speakers, presumably because what English speakers call light blue and dark blue are marked by two completely different words in Russian.  The idea of language influencing thought is known as the Whorfian hypothesis (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), and is quite a topic for another day.  In the meantime, what’s in a name for you?  Are there any names that stand out because of their meanings, connotations, sounds, or spellings?  It seems that people love a good name.  If you were to take a detour north on Route 80 the next time you travel to St. John’s, Newfoundland, just to take a selfie next to a certain road sign, you certainly wouldn’t be the only one.

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