It Does Matter   Leave a comment

Note: This is part 1 of a series about naming objects.

What would you call this if you had never seen or heard of it before?

“It doesn’t matter what you would call it!”

Now, Rock, that’s not true. Let’s take a look.

If we come across an object with which we’re unfamiliar, there are several methods we could apply to attempt to place an adequate label on the object. We can name it by its shape (triangle!), its color (think fruit), its function, its similarity to a familiar object, or its material (The Rock?).

The quality of the object we want to describe is the quality that seems most important, the quality that does the best job of describing its meaning to the average person- we  will call this the essential quality. The philosophy of essentialism, in which objects each have an essence about them defining what they are and what they aspire to be/do, will be used as a guide (though it may have little merit outside exercises such as this).

Imagine your friend is trapped in a ten-foot steel cube with ten unnamed objects on the floor. One safety object will transport your friend home, but touching any of the others will electrocute and kill him. You have a duplicate safety object that allows you to transmit one word to the steel cube. What word do you use to describe this object to your friend so he can identify the safety object in the cube and transport to safety?

There doesn’t seem to be a single type of quality that does well to describe every object we know in a crisp and succinct manner. Different objects, as we conceive them and utilize them, have different qualities that stick out to us as the most important. Here are a few methods for choosing the essential quality.

Some objects, regardless of shape or function, are named after what they’re made of either because the material itself is special or the name of the material implies in our culture what its function can be. What do you call a quasi-trapezoidal handheld device with a metal plate on its underside that becomes very hot and useful for removing wrinkles from linen?

We call it an iron, the material of its  most important and functional component. Describing it’s shape or how it works do nothing to reveal the essence of an iron, and the heat and wrinkle-pressing qualities would prove loquacious to illustrate. The iron underside is perhaps the most essential quality of the iron, definitely it’s most concisely definable important quality.

But an iron is also a golf club, one whose shape and scope of utility would take long-winded descriptions. An object tends to be named after its material when describing its shape or function becomes difficult or overlong, and the material is a man-made material you wouldn’t find in a pristine forest.

What do you call an object meant for holding liquid to be consumed in sips? A drink holder? Hollow concave cylinder? If it’s made of glass, we call it a glass. Things made of glass have a striking quality in our culture because we know glass is pretty and delicate. Its material is important, but not essential to its function. Plastic or metal or wood or porcelain can do the job just as well as glass, but we know what a glass is.

So what do we call an apparatus fashioned to rest upon the ears and nose with transparent lenses that cover the eyes, their purpose being to finely calibrate a person’s vision? Vision improvers? Eye windows? Ear mounts? Their vision-fixing abilities seem to be the main function, and a very important function, but how can you describe this quality? Is not the essence of glasses their purpose and goal to fix your vision? It is, but we don’t have enough good words to really describe that, so we go with the next best quality. Glass is unique to us for being transparent, glossy, and fragile. You don’t use glass without a specific purpose in mind. Let’s call them glasses.

We’ll stop here for the time being, picking up later with how an object’s shape can be its most describable essential quality.


Posted February 8, 2010 by Wada in Uncategorized

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