Happy Birthday Wordsworth

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Wordsworth facepalm predates Picard

For any who hold to the power of nominative determinism William Wordsworth is a fine example.  Who can give more weight to words than a poet?  Born with the name Wordsworth it is a natural segue into poetry.

What Wordsworth is best known for is his love and appreciation of nature and especially of his native Cumbria.  Much of the popularity of the Lake District as a tourist destination can be attributed to the poet.

In these dark #Brexit days as the UK retrenches into insularity it is interesting to note that Wordsworth’s first publication was in “The European Magazine”.  He went on a walking tour of Europe.   He was an admirer of revolutionary France until the Reign of Terror separated him from his lover and his child.   Clearly a man who would vote to Remain.  Wordsworth suffered the negative impact of a hard border.

But if William Wordsworth remains relevant today it may be as a canary in the coalmine for the impact of mankind on nature.  Long before the landscape of England was ravaged by industrialisation Wordsworth was a Cassandra predicting how mankind would harm our world.  The advent of the anthropocene has made him even more relevant.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
and are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
for this, for everything, we are out of tune,
it moves us not.– Great God! I’d rather be
a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
so might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

 

Nominative Determinism

Originally the concept of nominative determinism arose as a humorous feedback thread in New Scientist Magazine as readers observed how authors names reflected their research topics.  Polar explorations by Daniel Snowman,  a urology article by Splatt and Weedon.

This was a build from joke books of my youth.  “The Tower of Pisa” by Eileen Over.  “Legal Jurisprudence” by Argue and Phibbs.  “Treating Tennis Injuries” by Savage, Racquet and Ball. There are lot of those:  Funny books and authors  

Erik the Red, who founded the Viking colony on Iceland wanted to keep the island for his own people.  To dissuade other Norsemen from following he gave his colony an unattractive name.  His son, Lief Eriksson, did the opposite in an attempt to encourage colonists to settle in his new discovery, Greenland.

Some people have begun to take nominative determinism more seriously.  Some pointed to the fact that many names originated in the middle ages when people were named for their trade, and families stayed within a trade.  Thatchers roofed houses.  Wrights made wheels.  Smiths beat metal.  Fletchers made arrows.  Is there a genetic disposition to excellence in a field of endeavour?

A family that has genetically poor eyesight will not survive long in the lacemaking trade.  Do genetic traits in agility, intelligence, strength etc contribute to our aptitude for certain careers?

Then there is the environment.  The child of a musician is raised in a world of music practice, has a learned knowledge of what harmonies work well, grows up playing with musical instruments.  Learning to read music comes easier than learning to read language.  Smiths know the techniques for tempering steel, learned over many generations and passed orally from Father to Son.  Fletchers know how to make good glue.  Dyers know the recipes for pigments that stain cloth but do not fade rapidly in sunlight.  Tanners are used to the smell of piss and shit.

So in the modern world, when we are socially mobile, does our heritage still carry cues to our abilities.  Is nominative determinism a real thing?

For me the funniest example of nominative determinism is given in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.  With a surname of Major a vindictive father stepped in when his wife was comatose after childbirth and named his son Major Major Major.  The child is drafted into the US Air Force in WW2 as Private Major Major Major.  It is only the work of a short time and standard military bureaucracy before the Private is promoted, by clerical error, and assigned as Major Major Major Major.

Miniver Cheevy; by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

 

Chimurenga name.

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Sketch of an Ndebele Warrior by Robert Baden Powell founder of the Scouting Movement.

Chimurenga is a Shona word which translates as “revolutionary struggle”.  The first Chimurenga was a revolt by the Ndebele (Matabele) and Shona peoples of Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe).  The revolt failed after initial successes, and Matabeleland became Rhodesia.

In the 1960’s and ’70’s the revolt of the Ndebele (PF) and Shona (Zanu) against white rule became the Second Chimurenga.  This one succeeded.  Robert Mugabe, leader of Zanu then united the Shona and Ndebele factions into the Zanu-PF party which has ruled independent Zimbabwe ever since.

Leaders in the brutal guerrilla bush war often adopted war names to enhance their ferocity.  Gentle intellectuals went through over a year of tough bush training at the hands of North Korean and Chinese instructors.  They hardened up and so did their names.  They took cues from movies such as James Bond, Cowboy films, from music icons like Bob Marley, from sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, political leaders like Hitler, Stalin and even Indira Gandhi.

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliette from the Shakespeare play.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bart Simpson suggests “Not if you call it a stink blossom or a crap weed”.

Nominative determinism, the theory that our actions or career tend to fit our names, will see a job as a mechanic go to John Wright instead of Fred Taylor.  Do Chimurenga names work?

Who would you fear more?  Someone called John Oboyo or the guy beside him called Commander Comrade Mao?  Would you prefer to be interrogated by Ariston Ford or by Machete Footchopper?

More to follow on this theme.