Why we need to get better at naming things.

In my previous roundup, I linked to an Op-Ed about “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” by Warren Buffet’s son, Peter. It’s a pretty good piece, especially given who wrote it. The title is an allusion to the term “Military-Industrial Complex,” which was coined by President Dwight Eisenhower to refer to the relationships between the political establishment and the industries which profit from warfare. Homages in nomenclature like this one are a runaway trend in our discourse, and in my mind they’re a real danger: they facilitate a shallow approach to problems by glossing over differences and creating lazy mental shortcuts that might be easier, but lack subtlety and truth.

The term “Military-Industrial Complex” is a powerful one. Immediately, we know what we are talking about. Military and Industry  are colluding here, and sinister connotations come to mind immediately, every word contributing substance and emotional meaning to a phrase that has immense lasting power. We know that we should be wary of this complex. As a name, “military-industrial complex” is very successful. It’s memorable, succinct, and powerful.

Most people have trouble coming up with catchy names for their ideas. Very often they will borrow from established ones. So, in addition to the military-industrial complex, we now have the prison-industrial complex, the charitable-industrial complex, and the white-savior industrial complex.

To be fair, many of these share much in common with the term they allude to, so their lack of originality is at least somewhat compensated for by overlap in meaning. Let’s look for a moment at a more egregious example: the “Gate.” Ever since the Watergate scandal, so named after the office complex broken into, the “-gate” suffix has been affixed to  virtually every scandal that has surfaced in America, and increasingly other parts of the Anglophone world. The wikipedia list of scandals ending in -gate counts dozens of entries. Firstly, this is linguistically absurd and silly.

So where’s the beef here? Is there much of a downside to being so uncreative, so formulaic in naming events and concepts? There is a huge upside after all. Re-using an old formula ensures that no-one will be confused by new terminology, and concepts can be applied in new contexts easily and without much explanation necessary. This is laudable.

I’d personally argue that uncreativity in language use is deplorable by itself. As Stephen Fry points out in the video below, it’s a waste to use the same phrases again and again.

What’s in a Name?

In a famous line from Romeo and Juliet, Juliet argues “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” Names, to her, don’t make a difference, the essence of things is what matters. But Juliet is wrong. Think for a moment about serial killers. There have been dozens of serial killers in 20th century USA alone. But we don’t remember them all. We remember “Son of Sam.” A good name makes all the difference in ensuring longevity, if not immortality, in the public mind.

There is a compelling reason (in my mind) why our laziness in describing events and ideas is a problem. Let’s look at the Military-Industrial complex again. This is an idea that was expressed in the 1960s – fifty years ago. Many things were said in the 60s, many ideas formulated, many philosophies proposed. Most have been forgotten; this one remains. And a great deal of that longevity derives from a name that manages to pack so much meaning into such few words. So it’s not surprising that other thinkers try to ride on the coattails of this powerful term by alluding to it when describing their own thoughts. But no matter how many similarities there are between two concepts, taking a franchise-naming approach to things will inevitably obscure subtleties of thought and — this is important — dilute the meaning of the phrase.

If you overuse a term, it becomes a cliché. Calling a scandal a ‘-gate’ already has that effect. There have been many scandals (some of them real, others invented) in recent years, but few with any staying power. As a polity we don’t like to linger on these moments. For many issues, I can’t help but think that a more powerful name could have ensured a longer,  richer engagement with the problem at hand. A really powerful word or phrase can lodge itself in your brain. It can have a visceral impact. The “industrial complex” terms is in very real danger of becoming another cliché. Keep naming whatever you want to name the XYZ-industrial complex, and you will be guaranteed that the left knows this is an important issue, with big business unduly influencing government and human rights at stake. But you can also bet that people will start skimming over what you write, because they already know what you are talking about.

Lazy, derivative naming is tempting. But sloppy language leads to muddled thinking; issues blur into one another until we fail to distinguish between them. If our world is blurred we can neither see it clearly nor address what is wrong with it.