While perusing the children’s section of a local used bookstore, The Name Inspector came across a lovely book that’s basically about naming. He was as surprised as you are.

The book, first published in 1958, is Ounce Dice Trice. It was written by Alastair Reid and beautifully illustrated by the artist Ben Shahn. Reid is a poet, and the book is based on a notebook of words that he kept for a number of years.

OK, the book is more about words and their poetic properties than it is about naming per se. But it does contain this passage:

It is most important to be a good namer, since it falls to all of us at some time or other to name anything from a canary to a castle, and since names generally have to last a long time. Here are some possible names for possible things, to give you ideas.

It continues with lists of suggested names for elephants, cats, insects, whales, houses and places, and other things.

The connection between naming and poetry is strong. Naming lore, to the extent that such a thing exists, includes the story of a correspondence that took place in the 1950s between the Ford Motor Company and the poet Marianne Moore about naming what was eventually called the Edsel. In case you’re not too up on your modern poets, you might remember Moore for her widely anthologized poem “Poetry”, which begins with the perfectly disarming line “I, too, dislike it”. There’s another turn of phrase, which The Name Inspector has not been able to get out of his mind since high school, about poets inventing “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”.

Anyway, Moore, perhaps not taking her role as namer entirely seriously, suggested names like Mongoose Civique and Utopian Turtletop.

What’s especially interesting about the lists in Ounce Dice Trice is the way they demonstrate different aspects of sound symbolism, a topic that comes up from time to time in this blog. Suggested names for insects include Twilliter, Limlet, Tilltin, Legliddy, and Tristram. Notice the preponderance of sounds produced lightly with the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth: t, l, r, n, d. Notice also how often the short, high vowel found in the word pin makes an appearance. All these sounds suggest smallness and lightness.

Another aspect of sound symbolism that hasn’t been discussed much here is the way a consonant cluster can suggest certain ideas due to its strong association with the beginning of a particular word or cluster of words. One example is the sense of quick motion evoked by the consonant cluster fl-, as in flip, flit, flick, flicker, flutter, etc. Another is the “squishiness” of the squ- words in the illustration above.

Sound symbolism is an important tool for namers, poets, and poets acting as namers, and The Name Inspector is delighted to have been given a chance to show such a great drawing in his post.

[tags]ounce dice trice, alastair reid, ben shahn, poetry, poet, marianne moore, toad, squid, edsel, ford motor company, ford, mongoose civique, utopian turtletop[/tags]

2 Responses to “Naming, poetry, toads, and squid”

  1. on 09 Oct 2007 at 12:00 pm catherine

    Fantastic. This is why I love your blog!

    Incidentally, have you ever done a post about car names? I think Fiat released the Utopian Turtletop a couple of years ago, except they named it the Multipla.

  2. on 25 Jan 2010 at 12:23 pm Aldritek Arkadius

    In fairness, what brought me here was the combination of squids and poetry. But the post was an enjoyable read. I often struggle to pick just the right words, not only for their sounds, but for the emotional connotation that those sounds evoke. We are certainly “Name Givers”, and it might benefit many to realize the power that role entails.

    And if you’re interested in some squid poetry:

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