I have a fascination with the act of naming. Roman Mars and Graham Coreil-Allen do a fantastic job of summing up naming’s power and allure in the episode “Names vs The Nothing” of 99% Invisible:
Roman Mars So it all comes back to a name against a nothing. When you give a nothing a name, you can reimagine it as a something.
Graham Coreil-Allen If we can create terms for these otherwise invisible experiences and places and things that we all share, that we all of us share, and these public spaces, these new public sites, then it’s a starting point—it’s a starting point for that conversation. By giving it a term, we can then talk about it, and we all know what we’re talking about, then—that’s the first step. The second step is envisioning, “Okay, well, how does this need to be improved?” And the third step is, “How do we do that?”
Roman Mars The naming is where it starts.
(I highly recommend listening to 99% Invisible, by the way—it’s a fantastic, thought-provoking podcast. This episode in particular sparked something in my brain that led me to write up this post, which ties together a number of related ideas that I’ve been stewing on.)
Naming gives us vocabulary to use to describe our experiences. From those experiences, we can draw narratives. Some psychological and philosophical approaches equate the person with the narrative they form about their experiences. Others may not see the narrative as a requisite criterion of personhood—under their views, a person only needs to interpret their experiences. Whether or not that interpretation forms a cohesive narrative doesn’t matter.
Regardless of whether or not you think narratives are a necessary aspect of personhood, the fact remains that naming is a critical part of understanding ourselves and our identities. This triad of name-experience-narrative provides a framework for understanding both the popularity of identity-related neologisms, as well as the backlash to those neologisms. The close ties between name, experience, and narrative also allow us to interpret pushes for language change and the backlash to those efforts as well.
New identity-related words crop up everywhere. They’re particularly visible in gender-related spheres of discussion. Long lists exist to detail neologisms for genders outside of women and men. Even longer lists detail coined pronouns, like my own—you’ll notice that my pronouns are ae/aer/aers, which don’t, as far as I know, have any root in pre-existing pronouns.
“The naming is where it starts.” I’d spent the past two or three years waffling about the legitimacy of how I experience gender. Because there was no word, no name, that accurately described what I felt, I thought that I was just making those feelings up—even though the cis women I talked to couldn’t relate to how I felt, suggesting that I wasn’t quite one of them.
Plus, we so often skip the experiences part of the names-experiences-narratives framework and equate a name with a single narrative. So I didn’t—and still don’t—feel comfortable identifying as “transgender,” because I never experienced any kind of shift or crossing that seems so integral to transgender narratives. My experience has been one of becoming, which is why “genderescent” is such an important term to me: it’s the only term that named some of how I experience gender.
But genderessence only partially comforted me. I still didn’t have a specific name for my gender. “Nonbinary,” like “genderescent,” is an umbrella term. My specific experience is of sliding along this spectrum between femininity and some sort of nonbinary, nonmasculine gender. When I’m referred to as a woman, as a lady, it’s jarring. Sometimes, it’s as minor as an itch that I have to pause and scratch, but can then ignore. Other times, it’s like that lurching feeling you get when you think there’s one more step, but there isn’t. Terms like “demigirl” didn’t fit, because the very inclusion of the word “girl” would rip me right back out.
My recent comfort in understanding and identifying my experiences stems from coming out on Facebook. In coming out, I had to name myself and the pronouns that accurately name me. I identified myself as nonbinary, because it’s one of the more accessible gender neologisms and doesn’t necessarily imply a co-occurring identification as transgender. There’s room under that umbrella to accommodate me. Genderessence still describes me better, as it was specifically designed to work outside of a colonial, white supremacist framework, but I’m still working out how I want to present the term in public and semipublic spheres. I do want to provide more access to it, but only to the people that it describes.
In coming out, I started a conversation, and I’m still so grateful that people have been supportive and inquisitive in the most positive of ways. And in starting a conversation and beginning to truly claim my experiences, I’ve been able to connect to others who feel similarly, but could never speak about it because they didn’t have the words for it, either. Names give us communities.
The backlash to identity-related neologisms, meanwhile, stems from the fact that the conversation that a name begins necessarily forces participants to reflect on the cultural narratives that they’ve formed. Some people are fine assimilating new experiences and shifting their narratives. They build extensions to their houses. Other people take an experience that contradicts their own as a threat. To them, conversations about different experiences rock the foundations of their houses, threatening to destroy their pre-existing shelter. Whether or not their house actually crumbles is irrelevant. The threat is enough to provoke a response. (The two types aren’t mutually exclusive, either—each can become the other.)
Renaming, like naming, opens conversations. But instead of transforming a nothing into a something, renaming transforms a something into something else. I don’t believe that changing our words changes our thoughts in the Whorfian or Orwellian sense. Rather, I believe campaigns to rename our existing words, such as the R-Word campaign, ask us to confront the narratives we’ve attached to certain words. We bear witness to experiences we hadn’t considered before and are asked to create new narratives. There is, in most cases, no intent to control or to limit—just the intent to educate and to ask us to reconsider what we believe.
All words are names—names of identities, names of actions, names of relationships, names of qualities. A fundamental principle of linguistics is that language—and, therefore, the words that make up language—changes. So we name things, and we rename things. We call conversations into existence and transform nothings into somethings, somethings into something elses. We change, and our experiences and our narratives change along with us.