One photo a day until I meet Jonathan Harris

12th May

The magic in a name.

Anne-Marie told me the name of this flower as I was admiring it, but with my goldfish-like memory, it was promptly forgotten. Later when I wanted to find out more, without the name, I was lost.

I knew there was a "v" in it somewhere, so I searched for french flowers starting with "v", hoping that a picture or a phrase might jog my memory. Alas, even my most advanced searches (seasonal period, geographic location, etc) proved fruitless.

Anne-Marie had shown me paintings and sketches featuring the flower, so I knew it was popular and well-known. However without a memory of how to call it, all this world of knowledge and stories was blocked from me.

Finally when the hour of day was a bit more respectable I was able to call her and discover the magic word, the open sesame, the key.


Now the door was opened. I typed the special letters (in their correct order) into Google and all my questions were answered. It indeed seemed like magic.

A lot of people have written about the power, magic and mystery related to names and naming things. I'm sure that my cousin Tim once told me that the buddhists have a lot of theories on the subject, but allow me to offer the more banal and perhaps obvious perspective of a computer engineer.

If we imagine the 6 billion linguistically capable brains on the planet form a kind of database (the sum total of human knowledge), a name is what we call a 'key'. That is, a name can be used to access and retrieve relevant information from the collective human database. For example, if in a room full of people I ask the question "Is anyone in here from Paris?", the recognition of the magic name/word "Paris" by somebody might cause them to say "Yes!" (or "Oui!" depending on the person that responds). By then conversing with that person, I might be able to find out, ahead of time, important information crucial to my survival (e.g. "What can one eat there?"). If I had forgotten the magic word, this advantageous knowledge would lost to me.

In recent times, with the invention of writing and other forms of preserving human language, the size of this database has drastically expanded. It not only includes the 6 billion currently living brains, but countless others that have since ceased to function: those of our ancestors. If in their time they bothered to record some of their favourite names, now with the help of machines like dictionaries, libraries and Google we can reveal their magic even after the person is no longer around. This might provide inspiration to some - if you learn a new name whose magic you feel is valuable, now might be the time preserve it, if not for you, then for the generations that might follow.

But who wants to be stuck inside preserving names all day? The Pivoine itself (or more universally Paeonia suffruticosa) doesn't care what we call it, and besides, the magic conjured by its name is only a fraction of what it has to offer. It has many more mysteries waiting to be revealed, but only to those who are out there seeing it, touching it and smelling it.