The way we name things can tell people a lot about the way we see the world. Say you heard three different people describing the sight of a public demonstration: the first person describes those involved as 'troublemakers', the second refers to 'protestors', while the third identifies them as 'revolutionaries'. While each onlooker has used a single word to describe the people they see, you might already feel that you can infer something about their different points of view: the first person seems to have a negative view of those involved, the second a more neutral view, and the third a positive view.
Naming is of particular significance in the language of powerful or influential people and institutions. If a newspaper you read calls those involved in a demonstration 'troublemakers', you might be influenced to take a negative view of those involved in the demonstration. Here are a few examples of naming, gathered from the Language in Conflict Twitter feed. Notice how each example could have an ideological effect on the speaker or writer's audience, potentially shaping how hearers and readers view conflicts:
• 'Falklands islanders' — the Argentine foreign minister, Hector Timerman, recently used naming to help argue Argentina's case in the territorial dispute over the contested islands. Timerman claimed that "The Falklands islanders do not exist", thereby naming something yet denying its very existence. Through this creative and eye-catching use of naming, Timerman is able to neatly make the point that the islanders are simply British citizens, and so claims that Argentina should consider the islanders' right to self-determination erroneous.
• 'Combat zone' — a recent report at the Huffington Post explained how naming has been used to justify the use of armed drones over Yemen. With no armed conflict between Yemeni and American troops on the ground, Yemen could not fit the traditional designation of a 'battlefield'. By naming Yemen as a 'combat zone', however, America has been able to legally justify killings resulting from drone attacks.
• 'Threat' and 'risk' — Tony Blair's use of these terms in the Iraq Inquiry reflected a significant aspect of the way he discussed Iraq prior to the war. Both before and after the war, Blair frequently referred to Iraq and Saddam Hussein as a 'threat' rather than a 'risk'. This is notable, as 'threat' sounds more serious and imminent than 'risk'. As such, this allowed Blair — on both occasions — to emphasise the extent to which he felt it was crucial that there was a military intervention in Iraq. Note that this choice of noun may have played a part in creating a military conflict in the first place, as well as affecting the views of many who heard Blair's warnings about Iraq. For more on Blair's use of 'threat' and 'risk', see Lesley Jeffries's article Threat and Risk — Their Part in the Iraq War.
These are just a few examples of how naming is used in the context of conflict. Have you come across other examples in the media that stood out to you? What do you think the speaker or writer was trying to achieve through their use of naming? How do you think their choices might have shaped people's views? Share your ideas and thoughts in the comment section below.
To learn more about naming, visit Naming and describing in the Linguistic Toolbox.