And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.
Of course when Adam named something, including plants, the same was its name, since there was only one human, himself, so no disputing his word. Things are somewhat different since humans spread around the world and our languages diverged from each other. Is that a mouse or un souris? A courgette or a zucchini? And that’s before we venture upon politically correct or incorrect terrain. ‘It’s demeaning to call grown women girls.’ Try telling that to my late mother-in-law, who in her eighties was still going out with the ‘girls’ she had teamed up with as a young mother.
But we can demean each other in our words as a moment’s reflection should tell us; we can be clear or obscure, sometimes deliberately obscure – ‘as seen on TV!’
The world of science aims for clarity and by being clear it advances in knowledge and techniques. An understanding of antibodies and t-cells enabled the covid-19 vaccinations to be produced at speed. At a more down to earth level, over the last 250 years or so scientific names for living creatures have been developed so that scientists from Aberdeen, Asuncion, or Amsterdam will know exactly what each other is talking about. Mus musculus is a house mouse anywhere in the world.
The trouble comes when names are changed. Microscopic and DNA testing can establish relationships, and botanists hold conferences to decide on names. That’s how the shrub formerly known as Senecio ‘Sunshine’ is now Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’. Senecio comes from the Latin for ‘old man’: the leaves and seeds of the plant are greyish and white. Other senecios include groundsel, S. vulgaris, (left) and S. cineraria (ashen), below.
It’s not difficult to see a certain type of person taking pleasure in this business of establishing names, and feeling frustrated when gardeners do not follow the scientists and call Sunshine Brachyglottis instead of senecio.
But recently I’ve taken pleasure from watching someone establish names for things. A toddler is naming things that are newly experienced. He or she will of course end up using the names that are common in their society, though sometimes their mispronounced names stick for years, such as ‘Kipper’ which was as close as one of my siblings could get to Christopher, the name of one of our brothers.
For my younger grandson there is a whole world waiting for him to name it, and bring it to life for him, as Adam’s contribution to creation was to give it all names.
I’m happy enough to be ‘Gu’ for the present, and to be part of his world. It sounds better than Brachyglottis, for sure.