The Power of Naming

A beautiful sunrise

Ethnic Cleansing; Chain Immigration: Numbing Phrases

During early childhood development, one consequence of the attainment of speech is the relief that comes for a very young child when he or she is able to name something. Giving something a name makes it real, as well as something that can be communicated about. This is a constructive achievement.

There is another, but painfully and unfortunately destructive development that can come as a consequence of naming things. That is naming by coining a phrase for the purpose of legitimizing something that, with any thought, would be subject to repudiation. The phrase may seem clever, and effectively distracts from the actual meaning — such as drive-by shooting, or ethnic cleansing (“cleansing” sound like a good thing, doesn’t it?), and, more recently, chain immigration (“chain” sounds ominous, while the phrase actually refers to an attempt to reunite members of a family).

Recently, the phrase “Washington Street Corridor” has been coined either by the developer or the media to name a project costing megamillions of dollars to redesign and “develop” a significant part of a Boston suburb. Those of us who live in Newtonville, live in a village of Newton (incorporated as a separate town, known as Cambridge Village in 1688, then renamed Newtown in 1691, and finally Newton in 1766, becoming a city in 1873, which is about the time my house was built). We do not live on a “corridor.”

The power of naming exists in its wholesome form. But everything has a shadow — even the power of naming.