What’s in a name?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
-William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

There are some things that we, as human beings, are inherently better at doing than others. We’re masters of survival, brilliant at short-term planning, extremely efficient at categorization of previously uncatalogued experiences, and without any doubt the most intelligent and intuitive species to ever grace the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately, where there are strengths, there are also weaknesses. We’re not too hot at long-term planning. We tend to fear the unknown. When we’re uncomfortable, violence tends to be our first recourse. And we’re way too efficient at categorizing.

We love labels. In a sense, it simplifies things to slap a name on it – the name always carries implications that we can assume about something by the name alone. To (wildly varying) degrees, there is some amount of accuracy to this strategy. Coffee houses (from where I type this 🙂 ), males and females, democrats and republicans, sisters and brothers…all these names have meanings far more intricate than their one-word labels. Even the term “human” carries with it much, much more than the few aforementioned assertions.

And while this certainly has its advantages, it is simultaneously misleading, and often flat-out wrong. This is, for instance, how stereotyping arises. One of humans’ all-time favorite logical fallacies is to encounter one belligerent, violent man at a bar and immediately classify all other males as such. Or to discover a republican is racist and from then on classify all conservatives as bigots.

Obviously these are also oversimplified examples, but we all do it to some extent. Whether that limit before stereotyping takes over is one person, ten people, one hundred individuals, or more, there comes a point when our Monkeysphere becomes saturated and we have to make a sweeping generalization.



Both the strength and the weakness of this approach is, in fact, simplicity. The person often has a very reasonable set of “requirements” before placing a given label on something. “Coffee house” usually requires only that the establishment has built itself around the sale of coffee (hence why Dunkin Donuts probably wouldn’t typically come to someone’s mind first when thinking of coffee houses), and “male” and “female” are often classified simply by vision alone.

“Democrat” and “Republican” are a bit more challenging, though the most simple definitions remain “liberal-leaning” and “conservative-leaning”, respectively. However, depending on who you speak to, there may be additional requirements involved. “Tree-huggers”, “hippies”, “bigots”, and “fear-mongerers” are among the more endearing.

If anyone is a step ahead of me here, they’ll have been pointing out that the requirements themselves are also categories that are up for interpretation as well. And thus my main point here is, at least from a somewhat sideways perspective, revealed:

Labels, and especially their prerequisites, are transient.

You can throw any cliche you want about “nothing endures but change” or “nothing is certain but death and taxes”, but it all equates to the same. Obviously some labels are less transient than others, but these days you’d be hard-pressed to find something that isn’t up for debate; even some of the most passionate feminists view gender as the ultimate form of sexual discrimination.

In my humble opinion, the ultimate label here is human. It implies countless descriptors, not the least of which is how it is both transient and perpetual. Our puny little lives don’t last very long, and yet we change so much in that time, individually and as a whole – look where society was just 500 years ago, a period of time that barely registers as a blip on the cosmic scale. Definitions and categories have a way of changing dramatically over that time. Still, we are all irrevocably human, and all that label implies.

Anyway. I suppose that’s enough of a philosophical waxing for one day. Back to bioimage informatics research!


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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2 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. eksith says:

    “Labels, and especially their prerequisites, are transient.”

    Case in point… The word “Gay”.
    Now there’s another can of worms.

    Mind you we still see the effects of our labeling handiwork millennia later.

    A co-worker, who happens to be a student, was describing how she will use the color Purple in a speech as an introduction to human symbolism. Why it came to be associated royalty and exclusivity etc…

    Which made me think of the color Red.
    Why does it have so many labels?

    It’s the color of love and hate.
    The color of the ruling class and the blood of the working class.
    The color of oppression and freedom.
    The color of holiness and evil.
    The color of sacrifice and celebration.

    Welcome to the dichotomy of our species. We’re creatures of contradiction if only because we’ve worn so many labels, we’re actually repeating them… Only in different flavors.

    To think, there was once a time when the Elephant was the symbol of sound government of an by the people and the Donkey was the symbol of monopolism in power among a select few where the opinion of the people mattered not.

    Oh, how times have changed!

    • magsol says:

      I do happen to recall that, during a tour of the Vatican Museum, we observed a particularly massive purple-limestone bathtub. The explanation was that, since purple is a color that very rarely occurs in nature, it became a symbol of power and royalty to have something in purple stone, or purple cloth, etc.

      But how it came to be associated with “gay”? Or even just the meaning of the word “gay”? Or “red”?

      The connection I was subtly leading toward was not to dismiss/accept something solely based on its label, e.g. the way people shut down or bond immediately if someone professes themselves to be “conservative/liberal” or an “academic” or a “lawyer”…yeah ok, bad example on the latter. 😛

      My point is that labels don’t always mean what we think they mean, so take the time to investigate before making a snap judgment. Maintain a healthy skepticism at all times.

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