31 March 2016
Earning a Name For Oneself
Or not, as the case may be in Brussels and Lahore.
By Neil Tidmarsh
There’s been much ado about names in the news this week.
In China, the civil affairs minister Li Liguo attacked the fashion for giving new housing developments foreign names. He has a point; would you want to live in a place called Merlin Champagne Town, or Chateau Edinburgh, or Beijing Yosemite? How about Eton Town (in Suzhou)? Galaxy Dante (in Shenzhen)? Thames Town (near Shanghai – mind you, it does have red phone boxes and a statue of Winston Churchill, so we might let that one pass)? Venice (more or less everywhere in China) or Manhattan? (ditto). Three cheers and a round of applause to Li Liguo for suggesting that placenames should reflect China’s culture and long history rather than a developer’s attempts to cash in on bizarre cultural snobberies and on transient fashions for novelties and the exotic.
A name can take you a long way in China, nevertheless. Businessman Oliver Rothschild has made regular visits to China over the last four years, and has found that his name has opened doors for him and generated goodwill, hospitality and generosity among that country’s academic and business elites. That’s what happens when you belong to one of the wealthiest dynasties in history, of course; the only problem is, Oliver Rothschild has no connection with the Rothschild banking family whatsoever. He was outed by Chinese media this week, but has responded to international outrage by insisting that he has never claimed to have belonged to the dynasty. If his name is his best asset, no doubt he would argue, can he be blamed for exploiting it to the full?
The same story in reverse was also given coverage in the news this week. The author Robert Galbraith made public the letters he received from publishers rejecting his crime novels, criticising his writing and doubting its chances of commercial success. Robert Galbraith is of course a pen-name, and is not a man but a woman; no doubt the reactions would have been rather more positive if she had used her real name – J K Rowling.
A man in the USA who changed his surname to ‘Null’ to renounce all connections with his parents and family has discovered a surprising side-effect to this alteration; he often escapes being billed for hotels, care-hire, dental treatment etc because computers read ‘Null’ as meaning no data, nothing, nobody.
A British brewer has just won a two-year battle over the name of his product; his sparkling beer, called ‘Champale’, went on sale this week, after trademark authorities overruled French winemakers who claimed that it sounded too similar to the protected name ‘champagne’. And, while we’re on product names, Aldi changed the name of one of its paints when a customer understandably objected to the grotesque name of ‘rape yellow’. Aldi has agreed to change the name to ‘rapeseed yellow’ – but no doubt there are many people who find the agricultural name ‘rapeseed oil’ or ‘oilseed rape’ offensive as well (a name’s associations are powerful and cannot be easily ignored), if the correspondence generated in The Times is anything to go on. Readers have suggested changing the crop’s name back to its older and thus more authentic one of ‘colza’ or ‘cole-seed’.
And then, of course, there is the whole nautical saga of RRS Boaty McBoatface…
But why this focus on relative trivialities this week, when I should be commenting on the serious news items? Am I trying to avoid something? Well, yes, indeed I am. I should be commenting on the tragedies in Brussels and Lahore, I should be telling you about the perpetrators of those atrocities, questioning their motives, analysing their strategies and tactics, telling you who they were, recording their names, the names of those who killed themselves, those who were arrested, those who got away and are still on the run, carefully spelling out those unfamiliar and difficult names, for the sake of history. Names are important, as the above stories indicate.
But I don’t want to. And I’m not going to. I’m not going to name them, because that would be suggesting that they deserve to be remembered, that they will have a place in history. They don’t and they won’t. History shows time after time that such acts of terror, no matter how horrible, never change anything. They have achieved nothing – what they did is easily done in an open and free society – so their names don’t deserve to be remembered. Their political or religious motives might be unclear, but their psychological motives are not; as Clare Foges wrote in The Times this week, “Let’s deprive jihardists of the fame they crave. These are not ‘masterminds’; they are inadequate narcissists with only one way to get publicity”. She quotes George Bernard Shaw: “Martyrdom… the only way in which a man can become famous without ability”. She also quotes the judge who refused to name the boy from Lancashire who was jailed for plotting a beheading; “Glorification is more likely to be effective if (the defendant) is identified and more likely to encourage others to do what he has done.”
In spite of the atrocities they committed last week, those terrorists remain insignificant as individuals and their acts remain insignificant as achievements. So there’s no point in recording their names. So I’m not going to.