The importance of knowing names...

February 16, 2009

Everyone knows the importance of name-dropping….the casual statement that one knows Mr or Ms Soandso, subtly dropped into the conversation at the right time and the right place, ensures that many doors open for you, that were shut uptil now….

But equally important, I find, is the necessity to know names…as in, the names of things. If you know the names of, say, the various trees, plants, flowers, insects and birds (and of course animals) that you see on an outing, the respect given to you by the group you are with, goes up sharply.

I was analysing why it’s so important to know the right names, and I think that that the fact that you have the knowledge of what one particular thing or creature is called, presupposes a fair amount of knowledge about it. For example, the listener who confidently identifies Nasikabhushani …and equally confidently states, “in the Venkatamahi system it is called Nasamani” ( that sounds like a Tambram who is working in the American space agency!) is likely to be looked up to by fellow-listeners.

But this can backfire pretty often. I was congratulated by a fellow-photographer on INW for identifying a plant of the Clerodendrum species, and had to reveal the truth to him…that Karthik had id’d it for me earlier, that’s how I remembered it!

Even funnier was the incident of KM and my uncle, I don’t know if I have mentioned this before here (cf, “My memory is like a sieve” , written in LJ)…but when we got married, I told my Uncle, who is very knowledgeable about Carnatic music (REALLY knowledgeable, I mean, not just knowing names!) that KM didn’t know much about Carnatic music.

Then, one evening, we were all sitting together in a concert, and the artiste began a fairly unknown ragam…and as soon as my uncle leaned over and asked me, “This is a north Indian raga, what’s it called?”, KM replied, “Nandakouns!” My uncle berated me for running down such a knowledgeable person and never beieved my repeated statement that it was only because he listened to one tape over and over again, where the artiste announced “Nandakouns” and then proceeded to sing the AlApanai and a song in that rAgam, that KM could identify it so easily! “Try him with SankarAbharaNam or kalyANi,” I said, to no avail! “You modern girls, you should learn to respect your husband’s deep knowledge and not think you are better than them!” was the reprimand. KM’s reputation as a person of deep learning, and mine as an arrogant fool, were both cast for ever!

I too have been diligently learning the ids of birds and mammals and butterflies and even some spiders…but lately, I have been having a reaction to this. When it comes to really tiny wildflowers, does it really matter that I have to get their names correctly? Isn’t it enough that I see their beauty, appreciate it, even share their images on the net, and move on, without knowing exactly which species and genus they belong to? I am not a scientist or botanist, and knowledge up to the common level is, I think, enough for me….

Well, anyway…here’s the flower of the Silk-Cotton Tree, Bombax malabaricum (heh heh heh)’s nothing short of a feast for the birds, who drink the nectar from the base of the flowers….the trees are filled only with flowers, and the new leaves will appear later.

bombax malabaricum flower

Also, I am musing on how one can have so many different names, and identities….I am D Aunty to some, deponti to some, Myname to others, Amma to one person, Chitthi to some, Andy to a few….and one person used to call me a Rhombus, because I was a “crooked square”!

Yes, yes, this is the time to close with Willie’s “a rose by any other name” quote…as some disgusted student remarked, “That guy Shakespeare seems to have written nothing but quotations!”