Naming Things

If I could buy one indulgent new book for myself (and I’m not the type to buy indulgent new books; I am the type to buy nickel books and falling-apart books and books that have been out-of-print and gathering dust for decades), it would be “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World” by Maria Popova. I saw it propped up on a shelf while I was browsing for gifts last month, and I lost a full hour going through it. It contains page after page of words that exist in only one language, and then whimsical little marker drawings to go alongside. For example, there’s the Norwegian word “forelsket,” which is “the indescribable euphoria one feels while first falling in love.” Or “tsundoku,” a Japanese noun meaning, “the leaving of a book unread after buying it.” 

This collection is so charming because it’s satisfying to see words for concepts we all mutually understand. Really, there should be a word for the gratification one feels when one finds a word for something one previously believed there was no word for. 

Humans, seemingly uniquely, love naming. When I was seven, I took up the practice of sitting at the kitchen window with my mother during the blotchy impossible Portland sunrises to sort the birds by name. My mother does this all day long: her daily workspace has bird feeders lined up just outside the window, and she can tell you, at any given time, how many nuthatches, Bewick’s wrens, and towhees she has seen so far that day. I totally share this perverse compulsion to know the minute differences between species: I have a Sibley’s Backyard Birds poster hanging over my desk, and I fantasize (yes, I actually fantasize) about being able to differentiate between a white-crested sparrow and a savannah sparrow.

The preciseness of taxonomy has been a manmade obsession for thousands of years. One might argue that the impulse to know the exact name of every natural occurrence trumps genuine curiosity about science, at least among most people. Darwin sort of stumbled across the theory of evolution while trying to sort weird birds on the Galapagos Islands into discernible categories. Naming something gives you a kind of power over it. In her essay about butterfly collecting, Anne Fadiman even goes so far as to compare taxonomy to imperialism: '“Take a bird or a lizard or a flower from Patagonia or the South Seas, perhaps one that has had a local name for centuries, rechristen it with a Latin binomial, and presto! It has become a tiny British colony, she writes.

Yesterday I sat with my friend Aminisha on her living room sofa in the house she had just purchased off St. Claude. While she told me about her day, I pushed the eggplant-colored curtain aside and let the 4:00 light spill into the room. Aminisha interrupted herself. “The light feels good,” she said.

Beyond the initial barrier of requisite how-are-you-doing banter, she relayed a story to me that struck me as important. She said that she had recently sat with a friend at the house of a woman who had been experiencing some serious hardships. The woman spoke to Aminisha and her friend for a long time, unloading everything painful that had happened recently. Aminisha and her friend didn’t say anything, really; they just listened. As they left, the woman thanked them; she told them that they had given her energy to move forward.

Just as the act of pointing at a lizard and saying, “green anole” is strangely fulfilling, so it is to name the unspoken things inside a body. This can be difficult — more difficult, definitely, than the naming of plants or birds or types of rocks. You often don’t know what is in the body until you start to try to name it. At first you say, “I’m feeling… uncomfortable. Something isn’t right, I can’t put my finger on it. This morning I woke up in tears, but I couldn’t remember my dreams. Yesterday I spent an hour with this TIGHTNESS in my chest.” You can’t figure out exactly what is wrong. But at that point, you’re moving. The first step, I think, is just to name that something feels wrong.

I live in a house with a kitchen table that people sit around when they want to talk. Often my feelings are so painful that I don’t think I want to bring them to the kitchen table; but the thing about a kitchen table is that you have to go to it sometimes, because a person has to eat. A few weeks ago I came home with the familiar knot of depression worming up into my throat. I sat at the kitchen table because I had to eat a salad (it was past dinner time, I was starving), and my roommate Hannah sat down next to me. She said, “How are you?” I said, “My chest is hurting, because I feel sad.” Just naming such a simple thing calmed me. She spent two hours there with me, and I lay my words out on the table, like I was sorting stones.

We are taught to wait until we know exactly what we want to say before we speak. There is some idea that speaking exists only to move things forward: you should talk when you have some kind of objective; when you know what you want to get out of a conversation. In truth, naming doesn’t necessarily need to be about solving. It can be just about naming. “I feel uncomfortable.” “My stomach is tight.” “The light feels good."