March 10, 2014

The name of the noun

Asks Juliet at the beginning of perhaps Shakespeare's most famous and familiar soliloquy, "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" She means, "Why must your name be Romeo Montague?" and goes on to pose the following semantic argument:

What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Ah, if only it were so, Juliet. But I'm afraid you and xkcd are only half-right (click to enlarge):

In narrative fiction and poetry, the right words--even words that only sound right--form the foundation of verisimilitude, ringing the right bells without striking the wrong notes. In technical writing, the necessity should be obvious.

As Mark Twain put it, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." In the mind's eye (or rather, nose) a rose by any other name can smell awful.

Of course, there is that the trendy, post-modern notion that "naming things" is a bourgeois tool of "oppression." Except that coming up with words for stuff, Kate points out, is deeply rooted in human nature. It's what we have descended larynxes for.

My reactions to such blather are similar to those about soccer: the species spent the last million years evolving big brains and opposable thumbs and some numbskull goes and invents a sport that instead requires hitting things with your bare head?

Besides, any creative writer will tell you that coming up with the right names for characters alone is half the battle. The rest of the nouns make up the other half, as Billy Crystal patiently explains in Throw Mama from the Train:

Mrs Hazeltine, when you're writing a novel that takes place on a submarine, it's not a bad idea to know the name of the instrument that the captain speaks through.

A few good nouns can carry a lot of narrative weight. Watching One Piece, I am struck by how well the translators come up with both the logical and wacky English equivalents to the original Japanese. A small sampling from the Water 7 arc includes:

• The main transportion to Water 7 is the Sea Train, Puffing Tom.
• The train conductor named Kokoro and her granddaughter, Chimney.
• Iceberg, the mayor of Water 7.
• The Galley-La shipbuilding company.
• A mysterious government agency called CP9, and their base of operation, Enies Lobby.
• CP9 is after the blueprints to Pluton, a secret weapon—
• —believed to be in the custody of the gonzo shipwright, Cutty Flam.

Another classic example is Rutger Hauer's "Tears in rain" soliloquy from Blade Runner (largely improvised by Hauer himself):

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Even devoid of context, without any additional meaning attached to them, the nouns sound right, the mere act of speaking making them real in the imagination. And, yes, it really helps that Rutger Hauer is saying them.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
3/18/2014 2:26 PM   
According to my latest Paul Johnson read, Creators, Chaucer--"the most creative spirit ever to write in English"--had a vocabulary of 8,000 words (3 times less than Shakespeare); however, he added over 1,000 words to English. "Chaucer saw French and Italian poetry not so much as models to imitate but as verbal shop windows from which he could steal words that as yet had no English equivalents." He knew what he wanted to say--sure as Shakespeare, he was going to make it happen.