By Judith Geer
I heard an interview recently with former local TV news anchor Susan Banks who quoted her long-time broadcast partner the late Irv Weinstein. She said he always wanted the names of people he was reporting on because, he told her, “Names make the story.” That journalist instinct to retrieve the names – and to get them right – shows his respect for the individuals being reported on and, maybe more importantly, makes the viewer feel a kinship with the participants in the unfolding news item. Names are important to us humans and more than likely have been for as long as we have been churning out words and attaching them to objects, both sentient and non-sentient.
Several years ago a young woman told me a story about her brother. He had a paralyzed arm and was quite embarrassed about it as people he met would sometimes stare, thus making his social interactions often uncomfortable. Finally, his sister said to him, “Hey, how’s Alvin?” “Who’s Alvin?” he asked. “Your arm,” she said. When he looked at her quizzically she continued, “Well, we have to call it something. I thought Alvin was a good name.” He laughed, and in that moment realized that by giving his disability a self-chosen name he was able to accept that it was part of him. Thereafter, when he was in company and people would ask how he was he’d say with a twinkle, “I’m fine.” Then, pointing to his arm, he’d say, “Alvin’s fine, too.” This one little gesture relaxed the atmosphere and made others feel one with him. After all, most of us have disabilities of one kind or another to deal with, and owning them instead of being self-conscious about them is actually quite a relief. Attaching a name to them is part of the ownership process.
Nicknames can do the same thing. We give nicknames to people usually because we want to show respect or cast aspersions, but sometimes we do it to indicate that we feel a commonality with them even if we don’t know them personally. There is a story about President Franklin Roosevelt going into a war plant in 1942. He was a very popular politician, especially with those in the working class. He loved getting out with his fellow citizens, and on this particular day he was driven into the vast plant, waving and chatting with the workers. Suddenly, one fellow looked up, saw the president nearing him and said, “My God. If it ain’t old Frank!” Hearing the man use a truncated version of his first name, the president roared with laughter, doubtless pleased that he’d been seen as just another American worker doing his bit to save the nation from fascism.
For many years now my husband and I have been members of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society, a congenial group of people who enjoy learning the Latin and common names of all the plants they can find. Going on a nature hike with them is quite an experience, but I wouldn’t suggest it if you’re in a hurry! Inevitably, many of them will be consulting tattered wildflower books as they baby step along, carefully eying the blossoms they encounter. They are real sticklers about checking for the flowers’ names and feel a sense of accomplishment when they can attach the proper moniker to each bit of nature’s bounty they see. Maybe doing so is as close to owning these wild things as we humans can achieve.
The estimable Irv Weinstein was right: Names do make the story. And, just as often, names are the story, in everyday life as well as in journalism.
Judith Geer of Holland, N.Y., understands the importance of names.