Thursday, 14 December 2006

People often think editors are too finicky when it comes to language. What they’re really saying is: How important is precision? This question is easily answered if you read Neal Whitman’s blog. He is a literal-minded linguist. I was directed to his site by a friend recently. Below is the post that I stumbled onto – it gives a whole new meaning to the question “What’s in a name?”

What’s Your Name Called?

Here’s a passage that always struck me as a little odd:

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
(Luke 1:30-33)

Not, Thou shalt call him Jesus, but Thou shalt call his name Jesus. The name of his name is Jesus. Why a name should need a name of its own is not addressed, nor is what Mary’s son’s actual name should be.

OK, so of course we all know that Mary’s son’s name (as well as his name’s name) is going to be Jesus. So it looks like we have a kind of recursive function going on here, such that:

for all X, name-of(name-of(X)) = name-of(X)

In other words, not only is the name of Jesus’s name Jesus, the name of his name of his name of his name is Jesus, too. It’s Jesus all the way down.

Ah, but I’ve glossed over another detail that needs attention. The angel didn’t actually say the name of the name would be Jesus; he said the name would be called Jesus. Often the two mean the same thing, but they don’t have to. At least not in English, though saying I call myself is the standard way of giving your name in French and Spanish (Je m’appelle and Me llamo, respectively) and probably other languages. I’ve always wondered how people make a distinction between what they’re called and their true names in these languages. Can you say something like, Je m’appelle Spiff, mais elle m’appelle Flash, et mon vrai nom c’est Marv?

Evidently Lewis Carroll wondered about these questions, too. In this passage from Through the Looking Glass, he makes a four-way distinction along two dimensions: being vs. being called on the one hand; and one’s name vs. one’s actual self on the other hand:

You are sad, the Knight said in an anxious tone: let me sing you a song to comfort you.... The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’
Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it? Alice said, trying to feel interested.
No, you don’t understand, the Knight said, looking a little vexed. That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.’
Then I ought to have said, ‘That’s what the song is called’? Alice corrected herself.
No, you oughtn’t: that’s another thing. The song is called ‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!
Well, what is the song, then? said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
I was coming to that, the Knight said. The song really is ‘A sitting on a Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.

Lewis Carroll gets my You’re so literal! seal of approval for the week. If you haven’t read this book or Alice in Wonderland, read them now for even more literal-minded humor!

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