Why do people name their things
For years, Kyra Sims, a musician based in New York, never went on tour without her pal Otto. She describes Otto as loud, funny, and reliable. Once, when a train strike left them stranded in eastern Germany, they were forced to hitchhike at night, but Otto helped Sims keep her cool. “She was in the back with me, and I had a hand on her the whole time in case I needed to get out of the car,” Sims told me.
Otto, his beloved French horn, has been there for the grind and glory of Sims’ career: countless practice sessions, audition triumphs and rejections, concerts at Carnegie Hall, even a performance on scene with Lizzo at the Grammys. After years of playing the instrument, Sims purchased a case with OTTO embroidered on the front. This label – originally a reference to another horn brand, Dieter Otto – inspired its affectionate name. Now, when friends or colleagues reach out to say hello, many also ask about Otto. The French horn has become, in Sim’s words, “a life companion”.
Our lives are full of things, and our business is an essential part of our personal history. We can form complex, intimate relationships with the things we own – and sometimes that connection manifests in the form of a name. Many of us baptize objects—cars, wheel chairs, sewing machine, insulin pumps, vibrators– that fulfill meaningful roles in our lives, enabling freedom, creativity, health or pleasure.
Of course, most personal effects don’t matter that much. And in America, we tend to own a lot. New items are regularly acquired, forgotten and discarded in a never-ending buying cycle that has major consequences for equity and sustainability. But owning possessions is not inherently negative, and naming our possessions is a way to move away from more mindless consumption. Our possessions can become valuable extensions of ourselves if we treat them this way.
When we title something, we reframe it as an individual (Otto, Kyra’s horn) rather than part of a more generic category (the horn, an instrument), which marks it as worthy of Warning. “Naming it shows that the item is special to us in a particular way,” says Laurel MacKenzie, assistant professor of linguistics at NYU. Moreover, she says, naming can make our relationships with important objects less one-sided. “We give names to things to humanize them.”
Just having a name for an object changes the way we interact with it and how we encode it in the brain. From the earliest stages of learning to speak, infants are more likely to notice the unique characteristics of a stuffed animal with its own nickname than those of its counterparts who are referred to only by category. Studies have shown that named things are generally easier for infants to remember and identify within a group— although, as MacKenzie reminded me, people tend to have trouble remembering the names of real people.
Naming something has an even stronger effect. Naming promotes a sense of psychological control and ownership, which is a form of bonding. In a study, participants were asked to assign names to everyday objects, such as a mug or a stapler. By comparing the products they named with equally boring substitutes, participants felt more attached to their named object, considered it more valuable and even showed a greater desire to buy it.
Giving titles to our goods is not a new phenomenon. History is replete with examples of named ships, houses, and tools, some dating back millennia, such as the New Kingdom era pharaoh’s cane whose half surviving the nickname is something like “Tautnefer.” Named weapons – take the sword of the Castilian knight El Cid Tizonaor Te Tuhiwai, the green stone hand mace of Maori chief Te Rauparaha, gained a reputation for its deeds on the battlefield that persisted beyond the lifetime of its owner. And precious items with titles feature prominently in world mythology, including Icelandic epics and Hindu epicsbecoming important players in some of the most enduring stories.
Soonkwan Hong, an associate professor of marketing at Michigan Tech University, sees identity as a key factor in understanding our relationship to material goods. “You can drive the exact same car as me. But my car is my car. It’s part of me and my story, which makes it different,” he told me. Researchers like Hong categorize consumer behavior as profane – buying ordinary, readily available things – or sacred, driven by our personal values and a desire for deeper meaning. Hong explained that as an item becomes more essential to our sense of self, we tend to think of it as singular. “That way you kind of de-commodify that merchandise.”
The reverse is also true: objects that most people use all the time (telephones, doorknobs, lamps) are less likely to be considered singular and therefore less likely to be named. While these tools are essential to modern life, they are also easily replaceable or, in the case of phones, designed to eventually be upgraded to a newer, better model.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Americans the demand for material goods has increased, much of which fuels familiar patterns of empty consumption. But naming something can be used to fight against a culture of materialism. It is a deliberate, even unconscious, gesture to dwell on a good and imagine using it in the future. Although there isn’t a lot of comprehensive data on object naming, researchers I spoke with agreed that people tend to name the things they keep. This doesn’t mean you should blindly name your toaster, but it does raise the possibility of a link with our property. When we name an inanimate object, we intentionally build a relationship, elevating it to a character in our lives. Not only do we feel closer to the things we name, but perhaps we name our things to feel closer to them.
This matches my own experience with object naming. Many years ago, I impulsively bought a tea set while traveling alone in Central Asia. Cami (short for Chamomile) went over my budget and I feared would probably break to pieces before I got home. Every morning, as I wrapped her in layers of clothes, I would give myself — and Cami — a pep talk about how careful we would be on the bumpy car ride that day. Talking to Cami was ridiculous, but also a bit empowering. At a time when I felt vulnerable, traversing unfamiliar territory, she gave me an excuse to protect something else. And she kept me company.
Hong told me that some scholars believe that people write a biography of themselves with things, that our life stories are not complete without the things that matter to us. In my story, Cami became proof that I could handle the ups and downs of traveling alone, that I could take care of my business – and myself – even when I doubted my ability to do so. That the record shows that Cami is on display in my kitchen to this day.