On Naming: It’s For Survival

Forrest Christian Reviews - Books, Theory 2 Comments

Warren talks a lot about the power of naming, that until you get the all the names right in a particular framework of the Taxonomy, the whole thing seems wrong somehow. He’s not the only one to recognize the power of naming, of course. The Bible’s Adam starts naming things almost immediately, and it’s important enough that it is about the only act he does that gets described, until the whole fruit thing.

Close-Up: How to Read the American CityGrady Clay, in his impossibly great book, Close-Up: How to Read the American City, makes the same point for understanding our urban environment:

Prescription — the putting together of proposals, why don’t you’s, solutions — depends on one’s ability first to observe a problem, to describe it, and finally to propose solutions in language that is persuasive, if not eloquent, and firmly anchored to evidence from daily life.

This is no game to be played just for the hell of it, but for survival. Unless we all learn to say what we see, to describe it so others can see it, and to expand our own powers of description in a changing world, there is little reason to think we will do well at prescription, at finding solutions, at coping. Fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thoughts. The so-called “urban dialogue” of our time is not only dull but often hysterical. Its language is an awkward mixture of elitist architectural terms, of radical shitslinging, and of the manipulative lingo of evangelistic bureaucrats. You can read for pages or listen for hours, and have no contact with the hard facts of a living environment. Somehow we need to work out a better fit between language and environment. I think this can only happen if we continually confront the thing itself — the changing city, its people and their processes.


If I doctored it up a bit, I could use the same quote to describe much of management and organizational literature. Or even most political discourse.

Naming is a necessary step. It isn’t the full journey, but by naming the thing you get power over it, or perhaps it simply loses its power over you. There’s a rich literature on naming, from almost every writing culture. Get the names right or spend the rest of your time in the wilderness.

Comments 2

  1. Hi Forrest,
    I attended an executive working meeting several weeks ago. It was powerful for the work that was accomplished in the time available. Present was a leading expert in systems dynamics. A man who has worked with innumerable executive teams solving complex problems. In the end of meeting debrief he observed the efficiency of language that was used in describing work and accountability. In essence he said, “You had words to describe the work that were clear, unambiguous and understood by all present.

    This was a team who has been applying requisite organization and level of work principles for the past two years. They all acknowledge the quantum step forward they have taken in their ability to address their managerial accountability of defining and assigning work.

  2. Post

    It’s amazing that people aren’t given better names for their problems. I’m sure that people get Jaques’s namings for their problems and apply them to all of them. Later, they become disenchanted with them because they see that they need subtler nuance, which EJ certainly talked about. Start with structure and then later you can start dealing with personality (from that film shown at the GO Society). But if people didn’t have the right name for their problem, they would not have illumination to see it.

    I’ll have to talk at some point about “vision”, “calling” and your invitation to participation. There’s a lot about naming that can be unpacked and should.

    But this is such a great example. Glenn is able to give people illumination by simply naming things, even just saying that accountability means X and not all these other things that you make it mean.

    And for everyone else: I think that Glenn and Michelle of PeopleFit provide the best educational programs I’ve ever seen. You can get more bang for your buck by calling them up and having them come to your site than you can by calling McKinsey.

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