Software Musings

What’s in a name?

Posted on: 22/11/2006

Tonight I’m gay, delighted by the importance people are suddenly placing on words. For years I have regretted the demise of useful distinctions between pairs such as “fewer” and “less” and I had fallen into despair about people ever caring again about words. And suddenly there are two hot debates about the choice of words on the front pages of the newspapers: “marriage” and “nation”.

Let’s take the latter first. Various federal (I almost said “national”) politicians have suddenly started declaring either that the Province of Quebec is, or is not, a nation. The Prime Minister, Mr Harper, (you’d better use that link quickly, it’s a minority government) has declared that “Quebec is a nation within a united Canada” thereby robbing the word “nation” of any meaning at all. I have no opinion on the subject of Quebec nationhood but, speaking from the point of view of linguistic philosophy, it’s interesting that people would appear to believe that, by applying the name “nation” to something, it actually becomes a nation. Similarly, I suppose, if we start talking about the Universe of Quebec, it will become a universe. Strange.

I have no real interest, beyond the linguistic one, either in Quebec’s nationhood or in homosexual marriage but this latter word is another topic of debate here at the moment and the principle is the same: calling something a “civil union” is apparently OK with almost everyone but calling it a marriage will somehow make it one (if it wasn’t already). I’m a bit hazy about religious doctrine but I remember learning that marriage, as a sacrament, is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. If so, then marriage is a state (or grace) and I can apply the word to the two books lying open on my desk in front of me without the least effect.

So, we have an active and impassioned debate about the precise meaning of words and whether words are just names. This is wonderful and perhaps will eventually get rid of some of the “6 Items or Less” checkout points in supermarkets.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my Welsh brother-in-law who last week bought me a book entitled “Welsh National Heroes” which is apparently about heroes from the Province of Wales.


3 Responses to "What’s in a name?"

According to the on-line dictionary we both use, our mutual understanding of the word “nation” should be as follows:

nation |ˈnā sh ən| noun
a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory : leading industrialized nations. • a North American Indian people or confederation of peoples

while the Thesaurus gives “sovereign state, state, land, realm, kingdom, republic; fatherland, motherland; people, race” as synonyms. So why can’t we speak of Quebec and Wales as nations, eh?

The same dictionary’s definition of “marriage” is even more interesting!

marriage |ˈmarij| noun
the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.
• a similar long-term relationship between partners of the same sex.
• a relationship between married people or the period for which it lasts : a happy marriage | the children from his first marriage.
• figurative — a combination or mixture of two or more elements : a marriage of jazz, pop, blues, and gospel.

And what about people who profess loyalty to two nations?!

…or are married to two people??

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November 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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