In a previous era, the Bard of Avon made a similar poser pointing to futility of names using a floral allusion, going on to state that what matters is the thing itself, by way of totality of features and characteristics, and not its name howsoever fanciful it may be. Put differently, the play is the thing by which one can catch the conscience of the audience. Couching a lifeless string of scenes in promotional hyperbole sans the element of dramatic content would not amount to anything more than failure of purpose.
So what is in a word? The right answer is a world of meanings, the ‘name’ itself being a word heavily laden with multiplicity of meanings and associations extending with it. Phrases like ‘in the name of the law’, ‘name your price’, and ‘names of books and writers’, appear to spread the meaning beyond the simple notion of labelling. One of the dictionaries assigns the meaning of ‘name’ as a ‘word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others’. The given meaning, however, lacks precision as I know hundreds of people by the name of Ramakrishna, starting all the way from spiritual avatars taking the names of Rama and Krishna in the Vedas. Group a dozen of the same name-bearers in a room and the name ‘Ramakrishna’ ceases to designate or identify any one of them from the others. George Foreman, the former pugilist, named his five sons, George, George, George, George and George. Foreman says he can beckon them easily enough with added advantage of a sense of oneness promoted by the nominal uniformity, but he has a problem when each sibling blames the broken furniture on George.
Upon referring to the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it is seen that definition of ‘name’ spans five pages of small print beginning with, “1. The particular combination of sounds employed as the individual designation of a single person, animal, place or thing….” What follows is a rambling of several other definitions that reads like compilation of rules for the game of cricket. The etymological reasons for it are interesting enough to lead the reader to colourful history of the language. The word ‘name’ has been used by Anglicans over the ages to mean different things, often as a noun, but sometimes as a verb, adverb or adjective, as illustrated in the following uses of the word: “Your name is music to my ears / If I had a dollar to my name, I could make a name for myself / We name Henry as chairman of the committee / Maria would name her price; namely everything he owned / The mentalist could not name the composition in the maestro’s mind / In the name of the most benevolent and merciful, take one of my belongings / The name of the article was ‘Named Actor Seeks Anonymity’/ Geetha was able to name the state capitals, but not the animals in the zoo”.
The ‘name’, obviously, is a word that carries a wealth of meanings and linkages stretching almost endlessly. As a noun, its meaning is so broad that other words and phrases have been coined over the years to tote some of the baggage. A representative sample of synonyms for the word ‘name’ consists of surname, namesake, cognomen, anthroponym, autonym, nomen, pseudonym, patronym, matronym, moniker, appellation, epithet, sobriquet, agnomen, hypocorism, nom de plume, nom de guerre, alias, anonym, demonym, acronym, brand, signature, toponym, genus, icon, badge, symbol, label, title, classification, designation, rubric, denomination, type, specie, entity, and so on and on. Linguists themselves cannot agree on what a name is. Some argue that the meaning of a name is simply the real-world object to which it refers, while others attempt to show the linguistic meaning of names. Some say names are disguised descriptions of things, while others think they have no function in language except as pointers to objects. Some say that names have no meaning at all and still others maintain that the relation between a name and its bearer is outside the study of language.
The philosophical wrangling over the word has gone on since Socrates and continued by such notables as William James, John Stuart Mills and Bertrand Russell and more recently David Chalmers. Around the world in many languages, in academic fields of study like semiotics, linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and onomastics, scholars have taken the investigation farther beyond familiar territories. As one navigates around the various theories of names, one visualizes a greased pig that seems always to slip away whenever one thinks it is in the grasp. Nonetheless, we still think we know what a name is, that at the center of all confusion and ambiguity, the word ‘name’ still has a meaning we can understand and identify with, even though, the word, in its enormous fluidity, is like a greased pig. Like all human ideas used to weave the fabric that clothes the gamut of expressions in a language, the ‘name’ continues to be an evasive word constituted by sounds and symbols forming brocades in the overall linguistic apparel, as one of distinction and discrimination that is chosen, conferred and announced. It always belongs somewhere to something, it can travel the world and be understood like Ford, Toyota or Airbus. It ignores the rules of grammar to become a Bronte adjective, or it can Houdini itself to be a verb. Names have meanings instead of definitions. Proclaiming themselves on badges and emblems, names promote themselves on banners and signs, belonging also to birth and breed, title and tradition.
All other symbols, signs and sounds in a language are just common words, often chained together to serve sentences. They are slaves to grammar and syntax, clothed by connotation and context, artless when alone, dispensable when not. Whereas common words are only threads woven together in patterns and pieces, the names are brocades adorning the linguistic apparel.
When reams of data become imperative in the matter of elucidation of multifarious shades of meaning of an apparently simple word as ‘name’, one can well envisage the enormity in the formidable task of compiling the dictionary of a language in its entirety. The herculean task begins with reading vast amounts of literature of the period or the targeted subject. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their everyday usages, and also the sentences in which these usages appear. In short, the context of each word is collected together with the word itself. In a mega venture such as the multi-volume OED, millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing goes on for decades, in the case of OED as much as seven decades. As the cards are collected, alphabetized and sorted, there may be several hundred quotations for each of the words on the cards. The editor reviews the cards closely, discards many to trim it to what appears to be the several senses and shades of meaning of a given word. The writing of a dictionary, therefore, constitutes a meticulous recording of the meanings of various words as it meant to authors at different times in the past. The lexicographer thus is more of a historian than an authority on words. The authority, if at all, has its basis in and derived from the numerous ways and contexts in which words appeared in the past and maintaining its currency or datedness in the present.
Given the humongous scale and complexity of endeavour even for native speakers of the language, one can very well visualize the epic dimensions of lexicography for a German missionary and linguist visiting India of the 19th c, to learn a few Indian languages, acquire adequate mastery in one of them and proceed to write the first dictionary in the south Indian language of Malayalam, followed by as many as thirteen books in the same language, which is my native tongue as well. The mastermind here is none other than Rev Dr. Hermann Gundert, who arrived India in the first half of 19th c. He settled down in Thalassery on the Malabar coast, a town located about 154 miles north of my home city of Cochin in the present day state of Kerala (see header pics of Hermann Gundert and his statue installed at the stadium in Thalassery, pics courtesy Google). The grandfather of renowned novelist and Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse, the exceptional achievements of Hermann Gundert may probably be unique in the annals of world literature.
If there is one book I have grown up with, it is the Oxford Dictionary, starting from its abridged edition in my secondary school to the advanced learner’s format and subsequently to the voluminous compilations of OED and Webster in my graduate and post-graduate years. It is a matter of pride to look back appraisingly at my learning progression in the English language, which is not my mother-tongue, right from alphabetical stage to a modest level of proficiency across a timescale of fifteen years. The same interest prompts a peek at the fascinating story behind making of the OED. In 1998, the British journalist and writer Simon Winchester published a book called ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, a book about the life and works of Dr William Chester Minor, a former American army surgeon who became one of the most prolific contributors to the OED in the 19th c, while still locked up in a lunatic asylum for murder. The publishers emblazoned the words “A tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary” on the cover of UK edition, while the US edition was named “The Professor and the Madman”, the title of professor referring to Sir James Murray, the chief editor of OED from 1879-1915.
It is interesting to follow the cue of madness and its relation to such a highly erudite endeavour as compilation of the dictionary of a language certainly is. Even as scholarship is an acknowledged criterion to plumb the depths and explore frontiers of a language, it would appear that a lunatic streak combined with a felicity for expressions enables the capture of its nuances and elementals. The degree of automatism that comes with lunacy is a perfect conduit for the linguistic savant. The lunatic, uninhibited by conservative norms and cautious self-interest that capitalism hardwires into society, transgresses boundaries, the first being the limits of civility. Though there were several compilations of dictionaries in the English Language, starting from the 16th c, these were mostly amateurish, lacking in breadth and depth of scholarship. The credit for bringing out the first comprehensive dictionary in the language goes to Dr Samuel Johnson. The masterly compilation, published in the 18th c, represents a monumental feat in the English language, it being the output of nine years of industrious effort, executed single-handedly, with negligible clerical assistance, by Johnson, whose genius was coloured by his prejudices and eccentricities, which manifested in many of the entries in the dictionary. For example, the word ‘Oats’ is explained, rather impudently, as “A kind of food grain that horses eat. But in Scotland, it is used to feed people”. Rather amusingly, the elephant is described thus: “The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long-lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise of prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug: and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephant easily falls into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight”. Johnson’s detractors cite the entry as an example to berate the usage of an uncommon word like ‘pudicity’(meaning behavior that shows a sense of shame) to describe an elephant as also the sexual hint in the narrative, probably applied deftly with a commercial motive centuries before such a gimmick became cool.
The immensity of Johnson’s singular contribution as a lexicographer can be inferred from the fact that none thereafter, with the sole exception of Hermann Gundert as mentioned earlier, even attempted anything like a dictionary as a single-handed task; it was always planned as a group effort spread over long time spans. The same is the case with the OED which followed well over 170 years later. Ironically, it was James Murray, one of Johnson’s reviled Scotsmen, who helmed the OED project. In an endeavour that in current times will be described as crowdsourcing, Murray enlisted the help of thousands of far-flung volunteers, among them amateur philologists, to track the correct meaning and usage of English phrases past and present. Due to the hybrid or mongrel nature of the language, unlike Italian, French or German, English virtually received words and expressions from France, Germany, Greece, the Celts, in addition to other regions and languages around the world. It is, therefore, not pure, but defiled; yet robust as a fugitive language that initially benefitted from the Empire’s reach to partially embrace the world’s linguistic diversity and enrich itself in an eclectic process continuing into the present.
The eclecticism of the OED team is particularly evident in the manner in which the extensive scholarship of Dr William Chester Minor was gainfully accepted in the compilation of the dictionary. Regardless of his highly dissolute lifestyle punctuated by frequent bouts of delusions and paranoia, he became one of the project’s most effective volunteers, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian manuscripts to compile quotations illustrating the usage of particular words and phrases. Miller was even visited by the widow of the man he had murdered in a fit of schizophrenic fury; the merciful lady, sympathizing with his insanity, made further donations of books to his library. His invaluable contributions were duly acknowledged by James Murray stating, “We could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone”.
While work on the OED progressed steadily, Miller’s condition deteriorated to the point of delusions of being abducted and sped away to places as far away as Istanbul and forced into paedophilia; in a fit of revulsion, he commits the gruesome act of cutting off his own genitals, an act that amounted to the doctor performing amputation of part of his own anatomy. The appalling event did not, however, die out before inspiring two elderly women lexicographers who were on a train journey from the Oxford station. The incident was narrated to them in all its grisly detail: the sharpening of the knife, tying of ligature, the gritted teeth, the fatal slice – as the narrator completed the story, the male folks in the railway coach crossed their legs reflexively. But not so the two old ladies who remained unperturbed and impassive. Perhaps the cerebral gears were shifting creatively in their minds. In the next moment, they yelled out almost in unison, ‘autopeotomy’, explaining ‘peotomy’ as amputation of the genitals and, by logical extension, the neologism ‘autopeotomy’ to refer to the same act carried out by a person on his own body. Simon Winchester narrates the incident in his book where the lady lexicographers were egging him on to frame sentences using the new word so that it gained enough currency for inclusion in the next edition of the OED.
The march of words is a continuing saga, sometimes hilarious and at other times in serious vein, more so in English and to a comparatively lesser degree in other languages worldwide. The language is no more a well of English undefiled, as purveyed by Chaucer, as it has since travelled vast geographical swathes, keeping up with extent of the empire and drawing from and contributing to myriads of cultures in colonial times, and stretching across liberal minded world of today. Like wandering minstrels of yore and itinerant travellers of this day and age, words bob and weave, accommodating diversities, growing by accretion and altering in meanings according to demands of custom and habit, transforming as the world changes. It abhors uniformity, embraces incongruity, causing language to become hollow if everything around is hollow. Neologisms arise out of incongruities, as new words create new realities.