Words: The power of ‘naming’
Harold A Maio, 75, is retired from teaching German and mental health editing, though he keeps a hand in both. Through art and German he has a lasting interest in expression, particularly in language. To him word is art, he likes to discern the meaning in word.
Harold speaks to Newry Times this week about the power in naming.
There is great power in naming.
I am reminded of this as Germany prepares to build a memorial to those thousands of people murdered under Nazism in Germany’s institutions, those people Nazis named “worthless eaters”, those people for whom the gas chambers were designed.
Diminished to “worthless eaters,” murdering was greatly simplified. That it was doctors planning the murders made it that much more acceptable to those involved in the murdering.
The decision for the murders began in the spring of 1939 at Number 4 Tiergarten Street. Karl Brandt was the leader. The plans were brought to fruition in December of that year in a remodeled jail in Brandenburg.
The ‘showers’ were built, the crematorium was built, and the first five to be murdered were selected from a nearby mental institution. Their names are probably in some record somewhere, documentation was that important under Nazism, but they have never been given names.
I am aware of no researcher with sufficient interest to find them.
Told to remove their clothes, they did. Told to enter the ‘showers’, they did. Brandt and his accomplices then watched as they gruesomely suffocated under carbon monoxide gas.
The crematorium was not as ‘successful’, the chimney had not been constructed with enough height, the heat was insufficient to the task, ash and the odor of burning flesh rained upon the town’s residents. They complained and the site was moved.
The efficiency of the crematorium improved, the odor lessened, the murder program progressed directly to the institutions themselves, and from there to the concentration camps. Other “undesirables” would die there in the millions. The power of naming, the power to name, can have terrible consequences.
A term being considered on the memorial to the people murdered under the T-4 program I am told will include the word ‘euthanasia’ – the precise term with which Nazism disguised murder. I am told it will appear only in quotation marks.
I doubt a great many people will see them. They will see the word. Already news stories are repeating the term without the distancing quotation marks.
In naming great power.
Is a person “a slave”, or “held in slavery”, and does the distinction matter? In the US the naming held significant meaning, for once the term “slave” was accepted, the practice was justified. “Slaves” was authentic, “held in slavery” contested that.
The practice endured for more than a century in a country that claimed all men are created equal. A civil war ended the practice of slavery, if it did not fully end the results: People who believed in the right to own people continued to exist and to make their power known. Other names, derogatory, were invented, continued, continue.
In naming great power.
Part of naming is accepting and repeating, repeating out of habit, repeating without examining, repeating by rote. We are not always aware we are doing so. In awareness lies choice.
A mail carrier came to my door one day and asked what that beautiful tangerine colored flower in my garden was. I hesitated to tell her, and did not, knowing only one name and knowing its origin, the reasons behind its known-to-me name.
I went to my computer and searched the flower. Umayime is its native name. My computer’s spell check does not recognize that name. It also does not recognize “recognise.”
I am curious about the many ways in which cultures employ language, invent or steal words. Once a word becomes entrenched, it becomes a part of that culture and difficult to see.
”Man includes women,” or so I was taught in junior English in 1954. Mrs. Boorom. I believed her. Then the women’s movement occurred, the belief faded, disappeared altogether. A new voice had risen, roared, and suddenly naming became all important.
Women declared their equality and language would change to reflect that equality. Overnight it changed. Not without resistance, but it changed. No longer kitchened, aproned, women caused us to see them in all their variety.
Resistance to that recognition took many forms. Some women declared they had always been equal, and men challenged that they had not been. The challenges came from all aspects of American life, from the streets to the universities.
Resistance came from lawmakers, all men. Women prevailed. Naming would be equal, if practices were not immediately so.
In naming is great power, and at times the people prevail in naming. The mental institution, “Bethlem”, became “bedlam” through the power of the people. “Euthanasia,” as described by Nazism, fell. Though some still breathe its life, we are all fully aware the word lied.
Each step we take toward recognizing equality is preceded by word. It is word that leads us. Learning to lead word is our challenge. Wittgenstein: “Word is deed.”
We can measure our deeds by our words.
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