Naming and naming conventions have attracted their due share of attention from all circles over the centuries, from literary ones to research signifiers to what we call our children, or more acutely the name we have each been given to live as.
Members of the Sparknow team met recently in the Chilterns at Fiona’s to work in a calm space and we noticed that naming has many applications and challenges in our work, in a way that is worth reflection now. It’s a thorny issue.
A few thoughts from a few of us.
Carol Russell on origins
A story’s title is important. It is an invitation from a teller to their audience. It also forms a promise and often creates curiosity. We expect a story entitled The Politician’s Wife to be about a politician’s wife. If it turns out to be about a farmer’s son we the audience are not only irritated, we no longer trust the teller.
As a writer of stories I’ve found that there are times when the story flows from the title and other times when I have to write the story in order to find out what it is about, and at those times the title comes after. That was the case when I was commissioned by Spark to write my first organisational story.
It was an adventure. I’d spent weeks interviewing people, then sifting through the interviews to find the threads that would be woven together to form a narrative that all those involved recognised and felt reflected their experience. One of the biggest choices I made was to set the story in the world of Once upon a time… a choice that came about because I’d realised that all the people I’d interviewed had performed an archetypal function in the story they shared.
The next choice was the name of the world these archetypes inhabited and where their story took place. As this was my first voyage in to the corporate world it seemed fitting that I called this world Corporania.
When I delivered the story its title was The Treasure Map, when I saw the printed version that had been changed to Corporania, a much better title that has stood the test of time.
Sabine Jaccaud on entitling a story
When people collect examples and anecdotal evidence of what they do or what something means to them, we either invite them to name the fragment or name it for them. We have put much thought into what makes a good story title - for example on a recent project all titles have an object in them to be visual, tactile, memorable. We generally opt for a short one, aim for coherence across a collection and if we can, show a clever teasy link to the bigger issue that this story or collection unpicks or enlightens. But then it’s not the teller’s title. This tension between naming from an insider experience and naming from the point of view of a project’s curator or the custodian of a theme is tight. It’s a choice. As long as it’s deliberate. And that does not include the challenge of naming stories for global audiences. A cunning pun in English can sometimes have a narrow uptake.
Victoria Ward on two accidents of naming
Naming has always been important in Sparknow’s work and there are two tales of lucky naming accidents that come to mind.
Sparknow is a double accident of a name. You can read more in an earlier blog about the lucky randomness of how we ended up as Sparknow, a name that suits us well.
Our other accident of naming is in the Beyond project we did for the Asian Development Bank. As part of that work we developed Reflections and Beyond as a book and then gave the Asian Development Bank a gift, a soundscape made up of slivers of interview spliced together with found sound. Sparknow and Incidental worked in partnership. Up until the very end, the two stayed nearly unnamed and the project went under various other names including narrative practitioner, oral history and so on. It was only very near the end, by going back to the transcript of the interview with Noritada Morita - a former senior member of the ADB staff -, that David discovered the transcriptions had tidied away a vital word in the interview:
ADB really has to think beyond, where other organisations are not thinking…What is important is - what are you doing for the community, for neighboring countries and for the region…You can become rich, but Asians have to hope for…beyond.
Noritada Morita June 2009 quoted in the essays which accompany ‘Beyond, Stories and Sounds from ADB’s regions
(My bold.) That beyond became our central naming device and seemed to say everything about how the project had unfolded both for us and for the ADB. You can listen to the track that we created or to the whole Beyond soundscape.
Alicia Pickering on naming children and the challenge of bias
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” opined Juliet. But apparently Rose might not do so well at school if she is called “K’tee” or “Jordan”. In 2005, a debate between teachers on the Times Educational Supplement chat site (reported by the BBC on 23 September 2005) revealed that there is more to a name than may meet the eye: along with a name comes a whole set of preconceptions about the potential engagement, behaviour and academic potential of a child. Traditional names (Kate, Jamie, Imran) were associated with “delightful” children whereas Kloe, Kristopher and Bobbi-Jo were regarded as alternative spellings for “trouble”. Beyond basic social snobbery – as articulated by Miss Katie Hopkins of Apprentice fame on ITV’s This Morning programme (2013) – some associations with names run very deep. Prof James Bruning, Professor of Psychology at Ohio said that if people were asked which of two students - Wa Wei Lee and Kahine Jefferson - was more likely to better at mathematics, most would opt for the Chinese pupil. This decision would likely be based on an assumption that children of South-East Asian heritage are better with numbers, he said. Furthermore, a study of 2 million school children in Florida found that those with “traditional” names did better in end of year tests. For right or wrong, assumptions matter: if teachers expect less from K’tee and Jordan, might that mean that they achieve less? And how differently might a story or article or presentation of piece of research be received depending upon its name?