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November 4, 2018 / Congau

Sensitive Names

We don’t want to be called just anything. No one wants to be addressed with a name he doesn’t like. That is obvious and you cannot argue about feelings. If Peter doesn’t want to be called Paul, then by all means use his preferred name when talking to him.

But how far does the emotional attachment to a name really extend? When are we dealing with a sensitivity that should be respected and when has it gone too far? Don’t get me wrong, we should always respect people’s feelings, but sometimes there may be a reason to suspect that the reaction we get is not quite genuine or rather artificially enforced.

There is a difference between calling as in addressing someone and calling as in referring to someone. In the first instance we use the name in the person’s presence to capture his attention, (that is to get some sort of emotional reaction however mild) in the second we talk about the person usually when he is not present, and since he is not there, we don’t intend any emotional reaction from him at all. Therefore it is very important that we take a person’s feelings into account when addressing him, but those feelings are rather irrelevant when we just refer to him.

When naming a whole group of people this difference usually disappears since unless the speaker is addressing an audience (which most people don’t do all that often) it is only a matter of naming as referring. Then there should be no reason for any emotional reaction from members of the group in question.

Names that are used solely for reference, which are the case for most of the nouns in the dictionary, are arbitrary combinations of sounds that the speaker uses to convey the idea of whatever things or phenomena he has in mind. They are only conventions, any other name would have done just as well, and so as long as there is no ambiguity there is no reason to object to any particular name being used.

When referring to people (as opposed to addressing them) there should also be no reason to object, but still people to. There is an endless outcry against the use of this or that demonym.  (The gypsies have changed to be Roma and the black are now native Americans.) It is all so unnecessary and these misplaced emotions are probably caused by confusion about what it means to call someone. To refer to people is not the same as addressing them.

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