In his book “The Name of the Wind,” author Patrick Rothfuss writes, “A word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”
I like to think that Mr. Rothfuss is referring specifically to particular kinds of names, the names that light our world and set our imagination on fire.
Names pervade every part of our daily lives — Amazon, Dove, Patagonia, Netflix, Tesla, Verizon — the list is endless. Some names have become so embedded in our culture that we use them as verbs — “I’ll Uber to the party,” “FedEx the package to me and I’ll Venmo you the payment” — you get the point.
Yet, for me, the best names are those we don’t even think about. They are so good, they are ubiquitous and so potent, they have become part of the universal vernacular. They extend across nature, science, weather reports, and even restaurant menus.
For starters, think about the term “black hole” and how it came into being. Technically, a black hole is a Gravitationally Completely Collapsed Object (GCCO). When a leading scientist had to give a presentation on the subject at a conference in the late 1960s, having to say the full version of GCCO more than a few times was daunting. To save time and make things flow a little more, he decided to call this mysterious space-time phenomenon a black hole. The arcane term has since become part of our language, an everyday metaphor for a dark, inescapable force from whence nothing returns.
Still up in space, scientists at the Hubble Space Telescope gave us the beautiful and awe-inspiring name, “Pillars of Creation,” for three columns of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula cluster of stars, some 7,000 light years away. These pillars give life to new stars and hence a name with majesty and romance. The term sparks the imagination and creates a sense of wonder.
From space to the oceans, names work their magic. The unlovely Patagonian toothfish was a hard sell for fish wholesalers until one enterprising marketer decided to make the fish less alien and more palatable to the American market. He renamed it “Chilean sea bass,” and it went on to become one of the most popular dishes on American restaurant menus. Think of it another way: Can you really imagine ordering pan-seared Patagonian toothfish served with a potato leek purée and herby basmati rice? Give me the Chilean sea bass anytime.
No sooner had we got through the worst of the “COVID-19” pandemic (coronavirus disease of 2019) than the term “quiet quitting” entered our language. It was a reference to employees who were, supposedly, doing the absolute minimum requirements of their job and putting in no more effort than necessary. This phenomenon has been alive and well since people started working. My generation need not look any further than the 1999 movie “Office Space.” Yet branding the term with a catchy name — the alliterative q’s, speed of enunciation, juxtaposition of two different words — quiet quitting dominated the business conversation for nearly a year.
More recently, the term “atmospheric river” was on the lips of every meteorologist and on the minds of most travelers in the western United States this winter when these long, concentrated regions in the atmosphere that transport moist air from the tropics dropped a heck of a lot of rain on California. And the Southwest Airlines meltdown over the holiday week when it had to cancel 15,000 flights was not entirely the fault of an historic nationwide storm. The airline’s aged software was not able to keep up with modern demands. In other words, Southwest Airlines had a “technical debt.”
My point with recounting these anecdotes is that names really do matter. A lot. They help us to make sense of life and the world around us. They help us to communicate ideas and abstract concepts.
With the right idea, wording and sound, names do so much more than describe an event, an issue, a product or a company. They help bring it to life. And, maybe, that’s what Patrick Rothfuss was telling us.