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Naming and describing looks at the ways in which speakers and writers refer to particular referents — these can be things or people in the world around us (cats, houses, footballers), or more abstract concepts (remorse, linguistics, conflict). These choices are of considerable significance, as they can reveal the prejudices of a speaker/writer, and also colour the hearer/reader's view of the people or things being referred to.

When we choose a particular noun to refer to someone or something, we unavoidably present that person or thing in a certain light. For example, a sympathetic writer reporting on climate change studies might use the noun 'experts' to refer to the scientists involved, while a more cynical reporter might use a noun with more negative connotations, such as 'boffins' or perhaps even 'scaremongerers'. From these different naming choices, the reader gets an immediate impression of the writer's opinions regarding climate change, and those who conduct research into it.

While the scientists example is revealing of different writers' contrasting opinions, other effects of naming may be more subtle. This is often the case when a speaker/writer chooses a noun associated with a particular aspect of a referent. For example, a particular individual in the news might be both a businessman and an MP. If a reporter chooses the noun 'businessman' to refer to the person in question, then this places the focus firmly on this particular aspect of them. In this instance, hearers/readers may understand this choice as indicating that the individual is more concerned with commercial interests and making money than with the notions of civic responsibility attached to a political career.

Example 1

The importance of naming in journalism can be seen in an article on the Russian website Pravda Online. The article reports on the campaigning of the Ukrainian women's organisation FEMEN, and their political protests. At various points, FEMEN campaigners are referred to as "the 'feminists'" (the placing of the noun 'feminists' in scare quotes is not explained). This places a particular slant on the reporting. For example, the report mentions how "On March 22, 2010, the 'feminists' complained about the lack of women in the new government". This use of "the 'feminists'" instead of 'FEMEN' or 'the campaigners', for example, is significant. 'Feminists' will evoke in the mind of the reader certain (quite possibly negative) images and stereotypes that they associate with feminism, affecting their impression of the events being reported. An important assumption of many linguists is that all choices in language are significant — by referring to FEMEN as "the 'feminists'", the reporter is implying that the group's alleged feminism is at the root of their complaints. Further, the use of the definite article 'the' serves to identify feminists as one homogenous group — the opinions and actions of the FEMEN protesters are synonymous with those of other people who might be identified as 'feminists'.

Nouns are not the only words that can have this sort of effect. A noun phrase consists of a head noun and (often, but not always) other words and phrases that serve to pre- or post-modify this noun. This modification provides the hearer/reader with extra detail about the referent. So, a neutral, unbiased noun such as 'footballer' might be pre-modified by adjectives to give us 'the fiery, combative footballer', giving the hearer/reader more information about apparent characteristics of the referent. Post-modification of the noun could provide yet more detail. A relative clause, for example, could be placed after the head noun to give more information: 'the combative, fiery footballer, who is never far from controversy'.

The footballer example demonstrates the significance that naming can have in terms of ideology. A lot of information about the referent is contained within just one noun phrase. This makes it hard to argue that the referent is, in fact, not fiery, or not the cause of controversy. This is because noun phrases 'package up' information into concrete entities. If some of the information about the footballer was presented in a different way, in a complete clause — for example, 'the footballer is fiery', then the hearer/reader would be able to argue with the proposition that 'x is y' by responding that no, the footballer is not fiery. However, as his fiery nature is packaged up into a noun phrase, it is not part of a proposition that can be argued against: rather, the speaker/writer is simply pointing to something that exists.

Nominalisation is another aspect of naming. This can be seen when something that is really a process is turned into a concrete 'thing' (such as the word 'nominalisation' itself!). For example, 'accept' is a verb, and 'acceptance' is the nominalised form; 'ratify' is a verb, and 'ratification' is the nominalised form. Sometimes, the same word represents both forms, such as with 'decline' ('The empire will decline'/'The decline of the empire') or 'writing' ('I was writing an article on naming'/'The writing of the article on naming'). The way in which processes become tangible entities through nominalisation is called 'reification', and has important ideological implications. For example, Europe's leaders may be attacked for 'their failure to come up with ways to stem the economic crisis', with the nominalised form of the verb 'fail' allowing the speaker/writer to represent this process as an actual, concrete thing. This is a further example of how speakers/writers can present potentially contestable views as tangible and inarguable. If the leaders' apparent failings were instead reported in a clause — 'They have failed to come up with ways to stem the economic crisis' — we could argue that no, they haven't failed; as it is, the apparent failure is presented as actual and incontestable.

Example 2

People involved in conflict situations can use naming to help create a sense of opposition, which can usually be understood along the lines of 'us' and 'them', 'good' and 'bad'. This is neatly demonstrated in quotes from British union leader Len McCluskey in an article in The Guardian. McCluskey frequently uses the second person plural 'we' to refer to himself and those who are on his side, i.e. trade union members; on the other hand, he refers to those whom he perceives to be against his aims in various derogatory ways. The pronoun 'we' is particularly powerful in bringing the hearer/reader 'onside' with the speaker/writer, having an inclusive effect. Those against McCluskey are deemed "the enemy" and "a coalition that we don't believe has a mandate to do what it is doing". Note that each of these quotes consists of a single noun phrase, making them hard to contest. McCluskey refers to "the enemy" in his concern about how "if we appear frightened in the face of the enemy, then who would want you on their side?" Here, an opposition is clearly constructed between "we" on the one hand and "the enemy" on the other, a term which has strong connotations of conflict and warfare. The reader may sense another relationship of opposition in McCluskey's description of how "we are... creating people power that can demonstrate its anger against a coalition that we don't believe has a mandate to do what it is doing". Here, an opposition is created between "people power", which has connotations of democracy and inclusivity, and a "coalition that we don't believe has a mandate", which gives the impression of a ruling entity whose sense of power is, according to McCluskey, illusory.

Spotting naming

Headlines are intended to be short, snappy and attention-grabbing. As a result, they frequently use naming to cram as much information as possible into a small amount of text. Look at the use of noun phrases in headlines and think about how they package propositions about people, things and events into concrete-sounding entities.

Recommended reading

The 'Naming and Describing' chapter in Jeffries' study of women's magazines demonstrates how the analysis of naming can aid in the uncovering of ideologies (available at Dawson Era):

Jeffries, Lesley. 2007. Textual Construction of the Female Body: A Critical Discourse Approach. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 61-101.

The 'Naming and reference' section of Richardson's study demonstrates the significance of naming in news discourse:

Richardson, John E. 2007. Analysing Newspapers: An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 49-52.

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