The Names Conference (and thereafter)

I’m very happy to report that our Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference was a terrific time!  From the accounts I heard, people were pleased to take part. And the quality and range of papers was impressive.

Our first day, Saturday June 1st, focussed on toponyms (place names), and then on Sunday, the 2nd, we shifted our focus to anthroponyms (people’s names) including nicknames and literary charcters’ names. The conference’s guest speakers, Reuben Rose-Redwood and Lawrence Berg gave terrific talks that connected with our members’ interests. Organized around some of my tweets from the presentations– these are a few highlights of what was happening at the podium.

Fascinating presentation by Helen Kerfoot on UN efforts since 1960 to standardize place names. “China adds 20,000 urban place names annually… UNGEGN efforts ongoing” -Kerfoot 

Since 1987, Helen Kerfoot (an Emeritus Scientist with Natural Resources Canada) has been involved with The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).  Dependent on politics, resources, heritage recognition, urban development, and technologies including social media, the Group’s challenges have shifted over time. In her presentation, Kerfoot responds in part to these questions: Do the goals of standardization remain as before?  (Partially.) Will the work of UNGEGN ever be finished? (Maybe not.)

“‘Sympathetic pronunciations’ of place names demonstrate your politics” -Lawrence Berg

Dr. Lawrence Berg (UBC) spoke about place names in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Some people call locations by their Māori names, while others use English terms, and in between these are uses of Māori place names with and without traditional Māori pronunciation. Berg’s phrase, “sympathetic pronunciations” is his description of efforts at using traditional pronunciation of Māori place names. “Sympathetic pronunciations” is beneficial to me as I think and write about peoples’ names, and the effort we do or don’t make to correctly pronounce them. (Because, if someone is important, we pronounce their name as they do, right?) The term also caused me to think about an aspect of living in Montreal– that sometimes place names need to be spoken a few times, especially between anglophones and francophones, to be sure we’re talking about the same location.  According to Berg, when an effort is made to pronounce place names in accordance with founding cultures, it is a demonstration of political alignment that recognizes and supports the rights of founding cultures to live in a place peaceably, equally.

Following Dr. Berg’s presentation, it was great to have Dr. Philip Matthews in the audience, as his work on place names in New Zealand and more broadly, exonyms, is insightful and continuing.

(Exonyms are the place name or group names used outside of the culture where a place/group exists: e.g. English-speakers say “Korea,” but Koreans say Hanguk or Choson.  Likewise, Koreans only call themselves “Korean” when they are outside of Korea, or in Korea but speaking English. Both “Korea” and “Korean” are exonyms. Endonyms, by contrast, are the words people use to refer to ourselves in our own culture/language.)

“People who emigrate from India and shift their names to an upper class are ‘moonlighting’ in that class” -Sheila Embleton

Dr. Sheila Embleton (York University) gave a fascinating overview of names and name use tensions in India, focussing on regional, religious and caste differences. Besides providing a survey of names in use in India, she mentioned their uses in other regions. For example, to describe immigration-related name shifts, Dr. Embleton shared the phrase “moonlighting” which in India is used to describe what some people are doing when they change their names to reflect a higher caste as they emigrate.

Rudenka presents on few uses of “freedom” “independence” and “liberty” in Belarus place names vs. numerous examples in USA  “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter” -Alena Rudenka translates a Belarusian saying

I really loved Dr. Alena Rudenka’s talk!  Dr. Rudenka is a Fulbright scholar from Belarus who is currently working at Eastern Washington University with Dr. Grant Smith.  As context, she undertook this wonderful etymological tracing of the word freedom in English, Russian and Belrusian to link freedom to friendship and how the original meaning of friendship and society is about our ability to move freely.  Next, she noted the number of times the words freedom, liberty and independence are used to name places in the USA (many, many times for each!) vs. their frequency in Belarus (limited) and pointed to cultural differences between how language is used.  In Belarusian, what is most important is held sacred and not spoken, versus the US, perhaps North America more broadly, where we may attempt to make things happen with words– here, we hope that naming something a certain way makes it so.  Are we, in North America, more free because many of our places are named freedom?  That’s where this phrase of Dr. Rudenka’s rings particularly true: “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter.”

Rose-Redwood on selling name rights to public places: the name of Winnipeg’s City Hall is not for sale, but its parking lot’s is. Rose-Redwood adds that the naming rights for Winnipeg’s police helicopter are for sale.

parking lotIn my last post I was really looking forward to Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood’s (UVic) presentation, and he did not disappoint!  Initially, Dr. Rose-Redwood spoke in general terms about municipalities selling rights to city property: this strategy is increasing in some cities, as less funding is being received from federal and provincial bodies.  He then focussed on a research site, the “Sponsor Winnipeg” program, which includes an itemized list of objects, buildings, and services to which your name can attached.

helicopter

Included are the parking lot at City Hall, library bags for people borrowing books, and even the police helicopter. Scrolling through the list of potential sponsorship opportunities is somewhat sad– it appears that the city needs a financial boost. But findings from Rose-Redwood’s project suggest that this is not the best way to gain an influx of capital: the city doesn’t actually generate that much revenue from this program (as most naming right sales are a one-time purchase) and the city’s executive members seem to have mixed feelings about the program.

For me, a significant problem with selling toponymic rights is that it blurs honorific naming (based on merit) with naming rights that were purchased.  It may be clear to us right now what has been named as an honour versus what has been sold, but in the future, when the name bearers are long buried, these distinctions will be less obvious. Plus, it’s another example of capitalism’s creep: the loss of commonly held goods to a wealthy few, even if only in name.  (But I already said most of this in my previous post.)

On a related noted, one of many great things about being in Victoria was learning about the recent name reclamation of a local landmark. The mountain formally called Douglas was reclaimed as “PKOLS” by the local Coast Salish people. Read more about it here. (Thanks to Sherwin Arnott for the heads up about this one.)

All in all, these throught-provoking presentations have me feeling optimistic about the future of names studies in Canada. But some conference-organizing concerns did arise. First, three names scholars from Nigeria were unable to take part in the conference because the Canadian High Commission refused their visas in the week prior to the conference.  As well, our society functions in a bilingual capacity, but it seems to me that much of the onus to work in a second language falls on the francophones.  (A good reason for me to work on my French!)

Over and out from this tweeter of names,

Diane Dechief  Diane Dechief ‏@nomencultured

p.s. In a future post, I’ll write about my own conference presentation. And the great debate/discussion a few of us Sunday presenters got into.  It was pretty heady stuff!

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Why do we want to write our names all over everything?

Anticipating the upcoming Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference, I’ve been thinking about the names of public places. This is in part because one of the guest speakers is Reuben Rose-Redwood, a toponymic activist.

What does it mean to be a toponymic activist? Rose-Redwood’s bio and abstract are here, but in brief, he’s against selling the names of public buildings to philanthropists and corporations. I’m super curious to hear Rose-Redwood’s talk, and I’ll likely write a follow-up blog, but these are my current mullings/questions:

Over the past decade in Canada, a number of (re)christenings of buildings have taken place. This is a clear indication of our federal government’s trend toward privatization, but what does it mean for public places? These buildings are parts of our campuses, or our sport/concert complexes, but we’re now asked to think of and refer to these seemingly public spaces with a private label: the name of an individual or a company has become our referent.

Examples of these kinds of name-sales in Montreal include McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, and of course, the Bell Center. Looking West, Calgary’s Saddledome has had four prefixes since it was built (Olympic, Canadian Airlines, Pengrowth, Scotiabank), but it does remain distinctively Calgarian as “the Saddledome.”

During this same decade, the amount graffiti in Montreal –and perhaps in most places?– has increased. Montreal can boast some very impressive street art, but tags are more my focus here. Wikipedia’s extensive glossary of graffiti defines “tag” in this way:

tag (scribble): A stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign”. Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork. … The verb tagging has even become a popular verb today in other types of occasions that are non-graffiti-related. Tagging first appeared in Philadelphia, with spraypainted messages of “Bobby Beck In ’59” on freeways surrounding the city. Since then, individual graffiti scenes have displayed very different forms of tagging that are unique to specific regions. For example, a Los Angeles tag will look much different than a Philadelphia tag, etc.

mine

Tagging is a way to put your name on a public space for the price of a can of spray paint and the risk of a fine.  Can tags be thought of as a response to the sale of naming rights? Perhaps not, but perhaps. Thinking of tags in this way, I kind of admire the response: I can appreciate more fully the fluid arcs of spray paint.

But then, what is it about us humans that our impulse is to write our names on everything?  Why this desire to mark a territory, to claim a space with our name? (This question was actually posed to me, disgustedly, by my friend Sabrina.)

I’m not yet sure, but it certainly seems to be happening at every level.

Image

Canadian Society for the Study of Names: Conference Program

In just two weeks the Canadian Society for the Study of Names / Société canadienne d’onomastique will meet at Congress in Victoria, BC for our annual meeting.  We’re pleased to have intriguing and diverse presentations from our members, as well as two invited speakers.

Coming to know the politics of naming (places)
Dr. Lawrence D. Berg

This paper presents a spatial autobiographical account of the author’s own development of a critical understanding of place naming processes.  I use this spatial autobiography as a way to outline the rise of critical place-name studies in the discipline of Geography.  In addition, my presentation will draw on a number of empirical case studies of the politics of naming places in Aotearoa/New Zealand in order to illustrate key aspects of critical place name studies.

Biography: Lawrence D. Berg is full Professor of Critical Geography and Co-Director of the UBC Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, located at the Okanagan Campus of UBC in Kelowna, British Columbia.  Lawrence’s research focuses on issues of place and the politics of identity, and he has more than 80 publications on topics ranging from the cultural politics of healthcare for urban Aboriginal people to white supremacy in academia.  Lawrence is part of a group of scholars that first started research and writing about critical perspectives on the politics of naming places in the early to mid-1990s.  Along with Jani Vuolteenaho (University of Helsiki), he is editor of Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming (Ashgate, 2009).

Private Names for Public Places? Naming Rights and Toponymic Activism
Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood

 In the current age of neoliberal governance and entrepreneurial urbanism, the naming of places is increasingly being framed by policymakers in cities around the world strictly as a matter of economic calculation with the naming rights for public places being sold to corporate sponsors and wealthy elites. Very few scholars, however, have critically examined the historical emergence and geographical diffusion of municipal naming rights policies and practices. This presentation offers a preliminary assessment of the geographies of naming rights in Canadian cities as well as grassroots efforts to resist the commodification of public place names. Based upon an ongoing research project, the aim of this study is to examine the political strategies, economic outcomes, and cultural reception of naming rights policies in different cities across North America. With a particular focus on the implementation of the Sponsor Winnipeg program and activism against the City of Victoria’s proposed naming rights policy, this talk calls for a renewed commitment to “toponymic activism” that moves beyond arm-chair toponymy by demanding that our elected officials resist the short-sighted policy of privatizing the symbolic identities of public places.

 Biography: Reuben Rose-Redwood is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Victoria. His research explores the cultural politics of place naming, commemorative landscapes, and the historical geography of cities. He is currently an Editorial Board member for the journal, Cartographica, and has published works on various topics in leading scholarly journals including the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Social & Cultural Geography, The Professional Geographer, the Geographical Review, ACME, Cartographica, and Urban History. His research has also been featured in the New York Times, Atlantic magazine, and Canadian Geographic as well as on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, and BBC World Service Newshour.

Full Conference Program

Conference Program

Hush, Little Hashtag: the use of technology as personal names

OUPblog's 2012 words of the year

2013 has begun with a substantial amount of reflection on 2012: I recently joined Twitter, and seeing so many end-of-the-year lists being tweeted has been both novel by quantity, and boring in repetition.

Further, at the beginning of January I attended an academic conference that had its attendees consider the language that was used in America over the past year:  The American Name Society selected 2012’s Names of the Year, and the American Dialect Society selected 2012’s Words of the Year; both voted on winners in several categories. (The Names of the Year are noted in my previous post and Ben Zimmer has written a great account of choosing the Words of the Year.)

These opportunities to vote for names and words of 2012 had my head abuzz with a kind of backward scan over my memories of all the media I’d ingested, and it made me a little woozy.  But something that became obvious is the significant, and potentially increasing, imprint of technology on our day-to-day language. The image-link above is to OUPblog’s aggregation of words of the year for 2012 and from it, you can see that the words GIF and hashtag– key nouns in online communication– were popular(ized) this year.

Above, in yellow, YOLO (“You Only Live Once,” abbreviated), is another top word of 2012, which also came to our awareness via technology. This mantra-as-acronym, a close relative to the descriptive-acronym LOL, is ascendant largely because of its utility via text and Twitter. (Additionally, YOLO was popularized in a song from that poet, Drake. And as a complete aside, he’d now like some return from sales of YOLO merchandise.)

Many ways that technology impacts our use of language were correctly foreseen by Marshall McLuhan in his broadly interpretable “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan suggests that the particular characteristics of the mediums through which we communicate work to shape what and how we communicate. Because “words” like LOL and YOLO are easy to use via technology, they become broadly used in some subcultures, and then the rest of us come to know them, too. While “hashtag” and “GIF” are more broadly accepted, they too are only in the working-lexicon of the few. The conference I was at yielded some tweets, but certainly no critical mass of attendees were on Twitter– actually using hashtags– yet this group selected hashtag as the word of the year.

Though fewer still at the conference had heard of YOLO (or potentially, even, of Drake), with its cute roll-y Os, and youthful irreverence, YOLO also won. This demonstrates that technology doesn’t impact just the language of the people who actually use it; it has a ripple effect. And another ripple: there was outrage amongst a younger set on Twitter when this, um, more-established demographic sent #YOLO trending yet again, via these end-of-the-year musings.

But then, there is this other, potentially more significant, effect that I’m trying to make sense of: the use of technology as personal names.  Yes, the word of the year is also a name! Late in 2012, it was reported that parents named their infant daughter “Hashtag,” to the chagrin of most who heard the name. “Facebook,” and the more affirmative and specific, “Like,” are further examples of names given to now-toddlers that reference the social networking technologies which define this era.

Plenty of head-shaking and jokes have accompanied the news of these name choices. And I’m wondering why: what is so discomfiting about the use of technology as names? Is this a level of technology-creep that we just can’t accept? Perhaps. Here are some of the ways that technology continues to creep into language:

  1. Social networking (texting, tweeting, Facebook) technologies shape how we use language (more concisely, abbreviated, playing with upper/lower case);
  2. Use of these technologies has us making particular word choices: acronyms (LOL, YOLO), nouns that name technology and its components (GIF, hashtags), verbs that describe our actions with technology (tweet);
  3. Based on the example of these end-of-the-year selections and lists, including how many there are and how visible each is, we can include the effect of these technologies in spreading both information and language-use rapidly and between regions;
  4. And beyond the ways that social networking technologies affect everyday language, they are now implicated in that special class of words that interests me most: names.  Why bestow on a child the names of these technologies, just as we might name her/him after a family member, or a personal hero?

Technology-as-names seems to go too far.  I mean, how many children were named after earlier, pre-digital, infrastructures like bridges and buildings? Weren’t those structures, instead, named to honour people?

And then, why did social networking technologies catch on as names where earlier digital technologies did not? Perhaps this is because of how they are performative technologies, identity-establishers. Rather than building their identities via social networking platforms, through naming these kids become the platforms.

Maybe the issue is the movement away from naming people with names for/of people? There is an irreverent leap being made in these choices toward technology-as-names.  This playful blurring of object and human disturbs.  But how bad can it be? Through these names could humans perhaps become a little less human and a bit more thing? Unlikely. And really, how reverent are these wild new spellings of names, or the naming of babies after pop stars?

But, if it remains more accepted to stick with people’s names, apparently the name “Drake” comes highly recommended: easy to spell, easy to pronounce, kind of aspirational.  Not unlike YOLO.

The American Name Society selects 2012’s Names of the Year!

PSY’s Gangnam Style

It was a series of democratic votes that led to the selection of the following names from many nominations, made both in advance and from the floor.   I enjoyed being part of the crowd, though quietly tweeted the winning names, as opposed to rushing to nominate names.  I felt a little to the side, both as a Canadian and with it being my first of such events.

Here is the American Name Society’s Press release:

Sandy voted Name of the Year The American Name Society voted “Sandy” Name of the Year for 2012 at its annual meeting in Boston, MA on January 4.

“Sandy,” the name of the hurricane or “Superstorm” which devastated New Jersey and New York in late October, was cited for its historical importance and the use of the phrase “Superstorm Sandy” to create a memorable name which will bring to mind this event for years to come.

Donna Lillian, incoming President of the American Name Society, said “Sandy is also memorable because of its association with the sand that filled many shoreline homes as a result of the storm.” Because of the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, Sandy is also linked with the two biggest tragic news events of the year for the northeastern United States.

The society also chose winners for Names of the Year in four separate categories:

Fiscal Cliff” was voted Trade Name of the Year. Ben Bernanke’s use of this term has made it famous worldwide. Iman Nick, first Vice President of ANS, said “This name is now universally understood throughout Europe as well as in the United States.”

Gangnam” was voted Placename of the Year. This name of a trendy affluent district of Seoul, South Korea has become known through the United States and worldwide as a result of the YouTube video of a Korean rapper’s song “Gangnam Style”, which now has over a billion views. Hundreds of parodies of the song have been made, and scores of politicians and celebrities have appeared doing the dance featured in the video. The Korean placename means “south of the Han River.”

Malala” was chosen as the Personal Name of the Year. The first name of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for refusing to abandon her campaign for girls’ education, is now known worldwide as a symbol for women’s rights.

Downton Abbey” won as Fictional Name of the Year. The name of the estate featured in the British television series broadcast on PBS in the United States has become recognizable as a symbol for elegance and aristocracy, being one of the most popular programs ever shown on the noncommercial public network.

The American Name Society, founded in 1951, is a professional organization devoted to the study of names and their role in society. In 2011 “Arab Spring” was the ANS Name of the Year. In 2010 “Eyafjallajökull” was chosen. In 2009 it was “Salish Sea”, and in 2008 “Barack Hussein Obama” was the winner.

For more information on ANS or the Name of the Year vote, contact Cleveland Evans at Cleveland.evans@bellevue.edu, or 402-210-7458.

The Canadian Society for the Study of Names CFP

The Canadian Society for the Study of Names has a new VP: me!
And here’s the call for proposals for our conference in June.

The Canadian Society for the Study of Names invites proposals for our annual conference to be held at the University of Victoria on June 1st and 2nd of 2013.

Empress-hotel-victoria-bc

Founded in 1967, our aim is to promote the study of names and naming within and outside of Canada. Our meetings showcase lively presentations, which range from exploratory to critical, and consider names of places, people, brands, buildings, literary characters, tropical storms, and more.

If you are a scholar or a professional whose work contributes to the study of names and naming practices, we invite you to join us.  Please complete this form and email it, along with your abstract, by February 15, 2013.