Sunday, 8 February 2015

Words And Names

What are words? Just combinations of letters or sounds that have shared meaning. Or, in some cases such as a name, perhaps no other meaning than "this is what we call this individual item/person". In a logical world there would be no restrictions on names, because language is truly democratic and owned by all. However, we do not live in a logical world: companies and governments work together to restrict certain combinations for reasons of profit or control. Newspeak began a long time prior to 1984.

I got thinking about this when some friends told me last night that parents were not allowed to name their child Nutella. It's a silly name, but then again why should names be as bland as Charles or Brad? Although I'm not overkeen on names like Fifi Trixibelle or Satchel, at least the name is an outright admittance of difference, not some attempt to just choose from a limited pot out of fear of breaking with convention.

When I created characters and NPCs in role-playing games I rolled letter dice and used them to come up with names. But more and more words are getting legal restrictions, for example due to being registered as trademarks. Even words which weren't created by a company can be trademarked and restricted. Apple is a good example. Surely the trademark people should have said, “Apple? Sorry, that’s a real thing. You can’t trademark it for yourselves. Why not choose Apel? Apfruit? Drangus? There are limitless possibilities to make up words and combine them, why do you want to steal a word made by others?" Nah, that would be too sensible. So companies continue to steal from our language store. Please can I trademark the word glass? Memory? Candy? Of course.

I've heard the argument that we shouldn't worry - trademarking does not in any way interfere with using those words, with getting on with life, with making a living. Really? I think the stupidity of the modern olympics disproves that (the attempts to control "brands" went so far as to prevent chip shops that had been round for donkey's years from selling chips). It does have an effect. And the French novelist was taken to court for even just using a rich person's name in his book (even though his character was NOT that person). The control and monetisation of names is obviously important to those in power, to corporations, to moneylenders, to global junkfood companies; as important as their control of images. What ominous examples of attempts to control words have you come across?


  1. On the crazy names front I was slightly wrong about Blanket - it's a nickname of one of Michael Jackson's children

    There's also some countries that have a list of approved names you can choose from - I remembered Iceland but there's others:

    More on silly names here

  2. Thanks Alyson, some crazy examples there! I had no idea some countries had restrictions like that. I think forcing children to have a name defining their sex is ... well, sexist. It's saying that one of the core ways you define yourself _has_ to be based on one of your biological criteria - whether you identify with it or not - and discriminates on this based on your sex. You live and learn, very interesting thanks!